What is coughing?

Coughing is a sudden forcing of air from the lungs. It is a natural reflex to clear your airway. It can also be a symptom of a disease or other medical problem.

Some coughs are dry and hacking. Some coughs are deep, even painful at times. Coughs that bring up mucus or phlegm from your airways or lungs are called productive coughs.

Coughing can make it easier to breathe. For example, if you have pneumonia, coughing is helpful because it clears the airway of mucus.

What is the cause?

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

  • A cold or flu
  • Sinus infection
  • Bronchitis
  • Allergies
  • Heartburn (reflux)
  • Asthma
  • Heart failure
  • Pneumonia
  • Tuberculosis
  • Cancer, which may start in the lungs or spread to the lungs from another part of your body

Coughing is also a side effect of some drugs. Examples include ACE inhibitors and beta blockers, which are used to treat high blood pressure.

Sometimes coughing or throat clearing becomes a nervous habit even if you do not have an illness.

Any cough that lasts several weeks or more is called a chronic cough. This is true even if you cough only in the morning, only at night, or only in the winter. One common cause of a chronic cough is breathing irritants such as cigarette smoke, pollution, or pollen.

How is it treated?

You can buy many different medicines for coughs without a prescription. Not all cough medicines work on the same types of coughs:

  • If you need relief from a dry, hacking cough, choose a medicine labeled “cough suppressant.” Cough suppressants are medicines that lessen the urge to cough. If you have a dry, hacking cough and don’t have mucus in your airways that needs to be coughed up, a cough suppressant may help you cough less and sleep better. Cough medicines with the initials DM in the name contain the suppressant drug called dextromethorphan.
  • If you need to loosen mucus, choose a medicine labeled “expectorant.” Expectorants may help keep your mucus thin and bring it up from the lungs when you cough. This can relieve chest congestion and make it easier to breathe. The drug used most often as an expectorant is guaifenesin.

How can I take care of myself?

  • 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.
  • If you have a wet-sounding cough, don’t use medicines that contain antihistamines. Antihistamines make the mucus dry and harder to cough up.
  • Unless your healthcare provider has told you differently, drink plenty of liquids to help loosen mucus and make it easier to cough it up. Warm liquids, such as soup or hot apple juice, can be especially helpful.
  • If the air in your bedroom is dry, a cool-mist humidifier can moisten the air and help make breathing easier. Be sure to follow the product instructions for cleaning the humidifier often so that bacteria and mold don’t grow inside the humidifier. You can also try running hot water in the shower or bathtub to steam up the bathroom. Sit in there for 10 to 15 minutes if you are coughing hard or having trouble breathing.
  • If you have a lung disease, ask your healthcare provider about wearing a mask on high pollution days.
  • If you have a cough that last 3 or more weeks, see your health care provider.
  • Call your healthcare provider or 911 right away if you have a cough that causes shortness of breath or severe pain, if you start coughing up blood, or if you have trouble breathing.
Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-06-02
Last reviewed: 2014-06-02
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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