A cough is a sudden expulsion of air from the lungs. Its purpose is usually to clear secretions and inhaled foreign substances from the lungs and respiratory tract.
There are different types of cough:
An acute cough is usually caused by an infection, such as a
flu. In some cases, an acute cough can be the sign of other conditions, such as:
Subacute cough is often a cough that follows a respiratory infection. It can also be caused by exposure to irritants or to anything that can cause chronic cough.
A chronic cough has many causes. Common examples include:
Factors that may increase your risk of developing a cough include:
is a major risk factor for serious conditions linked to chronic cough, including
A cough can be a symptom of an underlying condition.
Coughs can be productive or dry. You may find that your cough is worse when waking up and during the night while lying down.
Call your doctor if you have:
Call for medical help or go to the emergency room right away if you have cough with:
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.
Acute cough is usually diagnosed by its accompanying symptoms.
Your bodily fluids may be tested. This can be done with:
Images may be taken of your bodily structures. This can be done with:
Your lung function and capacity may be tested. This can be done with pulmonary function tests.
The best treatment for a cough is to treat the underlying condition.
There are many over-the-counter (OTC) cough and cold products available. These include decongestants, expectorants, antihistamines, and antitussives.
Cough and cold medications should not be used in children under 2 years old, and they are not recommended in children under 4 years old. The US Food and Drug Administration has not completed its review regarding the safety of over-the-counter cough and cold medications in children ages 2-11 years. Rare, but serious side effects have been reported.
Consider putting a steam vaporizer or cool-mist humidifier in your room. This type of moisture therapy may help to make secretions looser and easier to cough up.
To reduce your chances of developing a cough:
American Lung Association
Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians
The Lung Association
Chronic cough in adults. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T146529/Chronic-cough-in-adults. Updated November 18, 2015. Accessed September 23, 2016.
Cough. American Academy of Family Physicians Family Doctor website. Available at:
http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/health-tools/search-by-symptom/cough.html. Accessed September 17, 2014.
Coughlin L. Cough: Diagnosis and management. Am Fam Physician. 2007;75(4):567-575.
1/30/2008 DynaMed Plus Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T146529/Chronic-cough-in-adults: Public health advisory: Nonprescription cough and cold medicine use in children—FDA recommends that over-the-counter (OTC) cough and cold products not be used for infants and children under 2 years of age. US Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm051137.htm. Updated August 20, 2013. Accessed September 17, 2014.
1/30/2008 DynaMed Plus Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T146529/Chronic-cough-in-adults: Paul IM, Beiler J, McMonagle A, Shaffer ML, Duda L, Berlin CM Jr. Effect of honey, dextromethorphan, and no treatment on nocturnal cough and sleep quality for coughing children and their parents. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2007;161(6):1149-1153.
11/12/2010 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T146529/Chronic-cough-in-adults: Smith S, Schroeder K, Fahey T. Over-the-counter (OTC) medications for acute cough in children and adults in ambulatory settings. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2010;(9):CD001831.
Last reviewed September 2016 by David Horn, MD
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