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Why you cough

Got a cough? Your first step toward relief is to find out the cause. Then consider your symptoms. With that information, you can choose the best treatment.

What causes it?

A cough is supposed to protect you. It gets out stuff that doesn't belong in your lungs and windpipe, like inhaled dirt or food. Here are the common triggers.

Viruses: Colds and the flu are the most common causes. While annoying, coughs that are 'productive' get germy mucus out of your lungs when you're unwell. Most cold and flu symptoms will be over in 4 to 5 days. After a cold, though, some 'dry' coughs last up to 3 weeks.

Allergies and asthma: If you have them, inhaling a trigger like mould can cause your lungs to over-react. They're trying to cough out what’s bothering them.

Irritants: Even if you're not allergic, things like cold air, cigarette smoke, or strong perfumes can set off a hacking spell.

Postnasal drip: When you're congested, mucus drips down from your nose into your throat, and makes you cough. You can get postnasal drip from colds, flu, sinus infections, allergies, and other problems.

Acid reflux: When you have heartburn, stomach acids back up into your throat, especially at night, irritating it and making you cough.

Other causes: Many other problems, including lung inflammation, sleep apnoea and drug side effects can be triggers. Get coughs that last more than 3 weeks checked out to make sure you don’t have a separate problem.

What can you do to treat it?

That depends on the cause. Options include:

Medication: Over-the-counter cough remedies may help adults. Expectorants claim to thin mucus and make it easier to cough up. Suppressants are said to lessen the urge to cough or stop you bringing up phlegm. But there's little evidence to say they are any more effective than simple home remedies.

Home remedies: You can drink warm fluids, inhale warm, moist air, or add a spoonful of honey and some lemon to a hot drink. Never give honey to a child under a year old. It has the potential to make them very unwell.

Avoid triggers: If you have allergies or asthma, remove allergens from your home as best you can. Keep pets out of your bedroom. You won’t see the effects straight away, but if you stay away from what bothers you, you'll start to feel better. Taking antihistamines may help dampen your allergic reactions.

Treatment for another problem: Coughs triggered by asthma, acid reflux, sleep apnoea and other medical conditions need specific treatment, often medication. Seek medical advice.

Time: Coughs related to common viral infections usually get better on their own within a few weeks. In the meantime keep your fluid levels up, rest and you can take painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen if necessary. Sometimes, the cough can last weeks after the virus has gone. Over time your airways should heal and the cough will stop. But if a cough lasts longer than 3 weeks get it checked by your doctor.

When to seek medical advice

Most lingering coughs are harmless but you can't figure out the causes on your own. If your cough isn't getting better after 3 weeks, it's time to seek medical advice.

See your GP as soon as you can if your cough interferes with your daily life and ability to work, or if it comes with any of these other symptoms:

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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on October 17, 2017

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