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Aside from being a nuisance, it’s important to know what’s causing your cough. Here’s why.

Coughing. It’s annoying. It’s uncomfortable. And it can be a sign of a number of different illnesses, both acute and chronic. But do you know exactly what’s causing your cough?

There are many things that can make you cough. Some are environmental and others may be due to illness or disease. The type of cough you have, whether wet, dry or phlegmy, can provide some indication as to what’s causing your cough. So can other indicators, such as how long you have been coughing, what triggers your cough and whether you have other symptoms.

Here are some reasons you may be coughing:

  • You’ve contracted an illness. Viruses, such as a cold, the flu, COVID-19 or respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), often cause coughing. Coughing may also be a sign of bronchitis, croup, sinusitis, pneumonia or post-nasal drip. If your cough is due to an acute illness, you’ll probably experience other symptoms in addition to coughing, such as a runny nose, sore throat or fever.
  • You have asthma or allergies. Allergies or asthma may trigger bouts of coughing. Asthma may also be accompanied by a tight feeling in your chest or shortness of breath. It’s not always easy to tell if you have allergies or a virus, as the symptoms can be similar.
  • You have GERD. Gastroesophageal reflux disorder (GERD) occurs when stomach acids flow into your esophagus from your stomach. The acids irritate the sensitive lining of the esophagus and may cause coughing, as well as heartburn and other symptoms.
  • You have COPD or lung cancer. Although there are a number of reasons why you might have a cough that doesn’t go away, see a doctor for an evaluation if your cough is chronic. It may be a sign of serious diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or lung cancer.
  • You smoke. Often referred to as a smoker’s cough, this type of cough may occur as your body tries to push chemicals out of your lungs.
  • You’ve been exposed to irritants. You may find yourself coughing in dusty rooms, highly polluted areas or if you breathe in strong chemicals or smoke. In many cases, coughing will stop soon after you’re no longer exposed to the irritants.
What can you do at home to treat a cough?

Drinking plenty of fluids helps thin out mucus and may reduce coughing. Humidifiers emit moist air that may ease coughing and congestion. Over-the-counter cough, cold and flu medications can help you manage symptoms. Although these medicines don’t treat the source of your cough, they can make you more comfortable. Some people also find that cough drops, lozenges or tea with honey ease throat irritation and reduce coughing.

When should you see a doctor for a cough?

If you have a mild cough that doesn’t go away after a couple of weeks or if your cough is severe or is accompanied by these symptoms, see a doctor for a medical evaluation and diagnosis:

  • Green or yellow phlegm
  • Fever
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Inability to sleep due to constant coughing

If you have extreme difficulty breathing, trouble swallowing, chest pain, blue lips or skin, or bloody phlegm, go to the emergency room immediately or call 911.


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Date Last Reviewed: October 19, 2023

Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor

Medical Review: Perry Pitkow, MD

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