How to Deal With That Nagging Cough

Woman coughing

If you’re dealing with a nagging cough that is lingering for days, weeks or months, you’re not alone.

Photo of Christine Franzese, MD
Christine Franzese, MD

“Coughing is one of the most frequent reasons patients see doctors, and it ranks in the top five reasons patients come to see us at the Ear, Nose and Throat and Allergy Clinic,” said Christine Franzese, MD, an allergist with University of Missouri Health Care.

Coughing is part of the body’s defense against disease. It pushes out bacteria, mucus and foreign particles from the respiratory tract to protect the lungs from infection and inflammation. While coughing has a purpose, it can also cause its share of problems.

“It can disrupt your sleep, affect school and work performance, it can even prevent people from being socially active or going places because they are so self-conscious,” Franzese said.

A physician can diagnose the cause of the cough and identify the proper treatment. There are many reasons for lasting coughs. The most common causes for nonsmokers are postnasal drip, asthma, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), chronic bronchitis and use of angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors for high blood pressure. Smoking is the primary cause of chronic coughing that can lead to more serious health problems, such as bronchitis, emphysema, pneumonia and lung cancer.

  • Allergy-related coughs: Allergen such as grass and tree pollen, spores from mold and fungi, dust and animal dander can aggravate the lining of the nose, causing postnasal drip. This watery mucus drips from the nose down the throat, causing a tickle that leads to coughing. Antihistamines, decongestants or saline nasal spray can help.
  • Asthma-related coughs: After being exposed to an allergen or pollution, the airways in people with asthma can tighten, which causes a wheezing cough. Rescue inhalers can offer relief.
  • GERD-related coughs: A “burned” esophagus causes a reflex to turn on heavy mucus glands in the back of the throat. When mucus flows over the top of the vocal cords, it can trigger a cough reflex. This cough can be worse at night when lying down. GERD medications and diet modifications can help.

Coughs that linger for fewer than three weeks are classified as acute. Coughs that last three to eight weeks are subacute. A chronic cough persists for more than eight weeks. Adults with a chronic cough should see their primary care provider or allergy provider. Children should get medical attention if their cough has lingered four weeks.

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