Most of us have had a cough at some point. Maybe many times, or even off and on all the time. Coughing is a common symptom of many different health issues. Sometimes a cough is irritating but not serious, but it can be a symptom of a serious health problem.
Many times, a cough is here and gone, like when you have a cold or the flu. That is called an acute cough. Other times, it becomes a long-term problem. That’s what’s called a “chronic” or persistent cough.
Even when a cough is not a symptom of something serious, it can still be a problem. A cough can disrupt your life. It can affect your work days and even keep you from getting the sleep you need.
So before you resign yourself to always having a pesky cough, or dismiss your short-term cough as nothing serious, you owe it to yourself to find out what you’re dealing with.
Persistent (Chronic) Cough
If you have a cough that just won’t go away, it is considered a persistent cough. A persistent cough is most commonly caused by chronic postnasal drip, asthma, reflux or medicine used for high blood pressure. Other causes include:
- Environmental irritants
- Breathing in food during swallowing
- Heart failure
- Lung infections
- Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
- Lung cancer
- Other lung diseases
If you have a persistent cough, talk to your doctor about what may be causing it.
Acute (Short-Term) Cough
Many of those same issues can also cause shorter-term, acute coughs. Other causes of short-term cough include:
- Upper respiratory infections, like colds, flu or Whooping cough
- Allergy flare-ups
- Blood clot in the lung
- Lung collapse
You may think your acute cough is nothing serious, just a symptom of a cold or flu. But even a cold can lead to more serious conditions called lower respiratory tract infections. These infections include bronchitis and pneumonia. Both are serious problems that need to be treated.
Bronchitis happens when the airways in the lungs become inflamed and cause bouts of coughing. Bronchitis coughing often comes with mucus.
Bronchitis can be acute or chronic. Most people with acute bronchitis get better after a few days or weeks. Viral infections, such as the cold or flu, are most often the source of these coughs.
Sometimes bronchitis lasts for many months or comes back years in a row. That means the lining of the airways stays swollen and it has become chronic bronchitis. It may be part of a serious health problem called COPD.
Your risk for either type of bronchitis is higher if you smoke cigarettes, have asthma or allergies, or are exposed to fumes or secondhand smoke. The most common symptoms of bronchitis are coughing with mucus, wheezing or shortness of breath, chest pain, or a low fever. Your doctor will do an exam and ask about your past health. The doctor may also do blood tests to look for infection or an X-ray to look at your lungs and bronchial tubes.
Often acute bronchitis goes away on its own. Drugs that loosen mucus or treat inflammation can help. Taking a couple of teaspoons of honey or using a humidifier may be comforting.
For chronic bronchitis, taking steps to breathe better and control symptoms is key. Your doctor may urge you to stop smoking, use medicine to help clear your airways or try other therapies.
Pneumonia symptoms can be mild or severe based on what causes it, your age and your overall health. The most common symptoms are cough with mucus, fever, chills and shortness of breath. But you might also have a sharp pain in your chest, headache, run-down feeling, sweating or nausea.
Do you need to call your doctor?
If you have additional symptoms with your cough like chest pain, a fever of 102°F or higher, shaking, chills, trouble breathing or trouble keeping liquids down, go see your doctor. A cough can even be an emergency. Call 911 if you have severe trouble breathing, a swollen face and hives, severe chest pain, or are coughing up blood.
Sources: Bronchitis, National Heart, Blood and Lung Institute; Is It Bronchitis or Pneumonia?, WedMD; That nagging cough, Harvard Medical School, 2019; Cough Symptoms, Causes and Risk Factors, American Lung Association (ALA); Chronic Cough, ALA ; Skin Test, American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, 2018; Allergy skin tests, Mayo Clinic, 2018; Food Allergy Testing, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2019