What is a cough?

Coughing is a common reflex action that is a response to irritation in your throat or airway. It is a normal reaction of your body to make breathing easier.

Infrequent coughing, like clearing the throat, is entirely normal but may increase when your throat is irritated.

Sustained coughing can be the result of a number of conditions, such as allergies, asthma, environmental exposures, and viral or bacterial infections.

What causes a cough?

Viruses and bacteria:

The most common cause of a cough is a respiratory tract infection, such as a cold or the flu.

  • Respiratory tract infections are usually caused by a virus and may last from a few days to a week.
  • Infections may sometimes take a little longer to clear up and may require antibiotics.


A common cause of coughing in young children is asthma.

  • Typically, asthmatic coughing is triggered by irritation or infection of the airway
  • Inflammation in the airway may result in wheezing
  • Asthma exacerbations often receive treatment using an inhaler.
  • It is possible for children to grow out of asthma as they get older.


  • Cigarette smoke, cold air, mold, or strong perfumes can trigger a cough.


  • Some medications can cause coughing, although this is generally a rare side effect. 
  • Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors, commonly used to treat high blood pressure and heart conditions, can cause coughing. The coughing stops when the medication is discontinued. Two of the more common ACE inhibitors are lisinopril and enalapril.

Other conditions that may cause a cough include:

  • Damage to the vocal cords
  • Postnasal drip
  • Infections such as pneumonia, whooping cough, and croup
  • Serious conditions such as pulmonary embolism, cancer and heart failure
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). In this condition, stomach contents flow back into the esophagus. This backflow stimulates a reflex in the trachea, causing the person to cough.

You should contact a doctor if:

  • Your cough hasn’t improved within a few weeks.

Seek immediate emergency medical attention if:

  • You are coughing up blood or having difficulty breathing.

If additional symptoms develop, contact your doctor as soon as possible. Symptoms to watch out for include:

  • Fever
  • Chest pains
  • Headaches
  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion

How is a cough prevented?

In addition to learning how to treat a cough, you might want to learn how to prevent it in the first place.

To protect against flu, make sure you get your annual flu shot, usually starting in September or October.

Other steps you can take include:

  • Avoid coming into contact with others who are sick. If you know you are sick, avoid going to work or school so you won’t get others sick.
  • Cover your nose and mouth whenever your cough or sneeze.
  • Drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated.
  • Clean the common areas of your home, work, or school frequently. This is especially important for countertops, toys, or mobile phones.
  • Wash your hands frequently, especially after coughing, eating, going to the bathroom, or caring for someone who’s sick.

With allergies, you can reduce flare ups by identifying the allergens that affect you and avoiding exposure to them. Common allergens include trees, pollen, dust mites, animal fur, mold, and insects.

In severe cases, allergy shots may be helpful as well and can reduce your sensitivity to allergens.

Talk to your doctor about what plan is right for you.

How is a cough treated?

Most coughs are harmless and go away on their own, but if yours lasts for over a week or you have difficulty breathing, please see a doctor. Coughs can be treated in a variety of ways, depending on the cause.

For healthy adults, most treatments will involve self-care:

  • Keep hydrated by drinking plenty of water.
  • Elevate your head with extra pillows when sleeping.
  • Use cough drops to soothe your throat.
  • Gargle with warm salt water regularly to remove mucus and soothe your throat.
  • Avoid irritants, including smoke and dust.
  • Drink warm fluids and inhale warm, moist air to relieve your cough and clear your airway.
  • Temporary use of decongestant sprays to help unblock your nose and ease breathing.

Some coughs will require medical care:

  • Typically, medical care will involve your doctor looking down your throat, listening to your cough, and asking about any other symptoms.
  • If your cough is likely due to bacteria, your doctor will prescribe oral antibiotics.
  • You will need to take the full course of any prescribed medication to help cure the cough.
  • The doctor may also prescribe expectorant cough syrups or cough suppressants.

If your doctor can’t find a cause for your cough, they may order additional tests.

This could include:

  • A chest x-ray to assess whether your lungs are clear.
  • •Blood tests to evaluate for infection, monitor immune response, or determine a possible allergic cause.
  • Sputum or mucus analysis for signs of bacteria or tuberculosis infection.
  • It is rare for a cough to be the only symptom of heart problems, but a doctor may request an echocardiogram to ensure that your heart is functioning correctly and isn’t causing the cough.

Other, less common tests include:

  • CT scan: A CT scan offers a more in-depth view of the airways and chest. It can be useful when determining the cause of a cough.
  • Esophageal pH monitoring: If the CT scan doesn’t show the cause, your doctor may refer you to a gastrointestinal specialist or a pulmonary (lung) specialist. One of the tests these specialists may use is esophageal pH monitoring to look for evidence of GERD, which can also trigger a cough.

Patient First treats many conditions at our urgent care centers including coughs. You can visit any Patient First center from 8am to 8pm, any day of the week – no appointment is needed