- A cough is
an action the body takes to get rid of substances that are irritating
to the air passages, which carry the air a person breathes in from the
nose and mouth to the lungs.
- A cough occurs when cells along the air passages
get irritated and trigger a chain of events.
- The result is air in the lungs is forced out under
- A person can choose to cough (a voluntary
process), or the body may cough on its own (an involuntary process).
What Makes You Cough?
coughs can be divided into
infectious (caused by an infection) and noninfectious causes.
The easiest way to simplify the causes of chronic cough is
to divide them into their locations with respect to the lungs. The
categories are environmental irritants, conditions within the lungs,
conditions along the passages that transmit air from the lungs to the
environment, conditions within the chest cavity but outside of the
lungs, and digestive causes.
What Causes a Cough?
- Any environmental substance that irritates the air
passages or the lungs is capable of producing a chronic cough with
continued exposure. Cigarette smoke is the most common cause of chronic
cough. Other cough-producing irritants include dusts, pollens, pet
dander, particulate matter, industrial chemicals and pollution, cigar
and pipe smoke, and low environmental humidity.
- Within the lungs both common and uncommon
conditions cause chronic cough. Common causes include asthma,
emphysema, and chronic bronchitis. Less common causes of lung-induced
chronic cough include cancer, sarcoidosis, diseases of the lung tissue,
and congestive heart failure with chronic fluid build-up in the lungs.
- The passages that connect the lungs to the
external environment are known as the upper respiratory tract. Chronic
sinus infections, chronic postnasal drip, diseases of the external ear,
infections of the throat, and use of ACE inhibitor medications for high
blood pressure have all been implicated in chronic cough.
- In addition to disease processes within the lung
and air passages, diseases elsewhere within the chest cavity may also
be responsible for chronic cough. Conditions within the chest known to
cause chronic cough include cancer, unusual growth of a lymph node, and
an abnormal enlargement of the aorta, the main blood vessel leaving the
- An often-overlooked cause of the chronic cough is
gastroesophageal reflux (GERD). GERD occurs when acid from the stomach
travels up the esophagus. This abnormal condition can cause irritation
of the esophagus and larynx resulting in the reflex production of a
Cough Relief: How to Lose a Bad
1. Stay Hydrated
An upper respiratory tract infection like a cold or flu
drip. Extra secretions trickle down the back of your throat,
irritating it and sometimes causing a cough, Mosnaim says.
Drinking fluids helps to thin out the mucus in
postnasal drip, says Kenneth DeVault, MD, professor of medicine at the
Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla.
Drinking liquids also helps to keep mucous
membranes moist. This is particularly helpful in winter, when houses
tend to be dry, another cause of cough, he says.
2. Try Lozenges and Hot Drinks
Try a menthol cough drop, Yoder suggests. “It
numbs the back of the throat, and that will tend to decrease the cough
Drinking warm tea with honey also can soothe the
throat. There is some clinical evidence to support this strategy, Yoder
3. Take Steamy Showers, and Use
A hot shower can help a cough by loosening
secretions in the nose. Mosnaim says this steamy strategy can help ease
coughs not only from colds,
but also from allergies.
Humidifiers may also help. In a dry home, nasal
secretions (snot) can become dried out and uncomfortable, Mosnaim
explains. Putting moisture back in the air can help your cough. But be
careful not to overdo it.
“The downside is, if you don’t clean it,
(humidifiers) become reservoirs for pumping out fungus and mold into
the air, and bacteria,” says Robert Naclerio, MD, chief of
otolaryngology at the University of Chicago.
4. Remove Irritants From the Air
Perfumes and scented bathroom sprays may seem
benign. But for some people they can cause chronic sinus irritation,
producing extra mucus that leads to chronic cough, says Alan Weiss, MD,
a general internist at the Cleveland Clinic. Take control by avoiding
such scented products.
The worst irritant in the air is, of course,
smoke. Almost all smokers eventually develop “smoker’s cough." Everyone
around the smoker may suffer from some airway irritation. The best
solution? Smokers need to stop
smoking. (Yoder warns that severe chronic cough can be a
of emphysema or lung
cancer in smokers, so see a
doctor if you’re a smoker with chronic cough.)
5. Take Medications to Treat
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