Elizabeth Otero, M.D.



Coughing is  a sudden forcing of air from the lungs. It is a natural reflex to clear the air passages. It can also be a symptom of a disease or other medical problem. Some coughs are dry and hacking. Some coughs are deeper, even painful at times. Some coughs bring up mucus or phlegm. Healthcare providers call these coughs productive coughs. Coughs that bring mucus up out of your airways can make it easier to breathe. For example, if you have pneumonia, coughing is helpful because it clears the airway of mucus. This relieves chest congestion and makes it easier to breathe.

Coughing often occurs when the airways are irritated. It can be caused by:

► a cold or flu
► sinus infection
► bronchitis
► allergies
► heartburn (reflux)
► asthma

It may also be caused by more serious illnesses such as:

► heart failure
► pneumonia
► tuberculosis
► cancer

Some drugs may cause coughing as a side effect. Examples of such drugs are ACE inhibitors and beta blockers, which are drugs used to treat high blood pressure.

Sometimes people just have a nervous habit of coughing or throat clearing. Any cough that lasts several weeks or more is chronic. This is true even if it occurs only in the morning, only at night, or only in the winter. One common cause of a chronic cough is exposure to irritants such as smoke or pollen. Some people with a chronic cough get so used to coughing that they consider it normal. This is often true of the smoker's cough that many smokers come to accept as a part of waking up in the morning. The problem may be more serious than they think.

If you smoke, stop. If someone else in your household smokes, ask them to smoke outside. Avoid exposure to secondhand smoke.

Take cough medicine if recommended by your healthcare provider. Always follow the instructions on the label of cough medicines.

Get plenty of rest.

Call 911 right away if you have a cough that causes shortness of breath or severe pain, or if you begin coughing up blood.

Call your healthcare provider right away if you have trouble breathing.

Schedule an appointment with your provider during office hours if you have:

► a cough with fever higher than 101.5°F (38.6°C)
► phlegm that looks greenish or has streaks of blood in it
► a cough that interferes with your sleep or daily activities
► a cough that has not gotten better in 7 days
► a violent cough that comes on suddenly
► a high-pitched sound when you breathe in
► unexpected weight loss as well as a cough