Coughing is the body's way of removing
foreign material or mucus from the
lungs and upper airway passages or of reacting to an irritated airway. Coughs
have distinctive traits you can learn to recognize. A cough is only a symptom,
not a disease, and often the importance of your cough can be determined only
when other symptoms are evaluated.
For information about coughs in
children, see the topic
Coughs, Age 11 and Younger.
A productive cough produces phlegm
or mucus (sputum). The mucus may have drained down the back of the throat from
the nose or sinuses or may have come up
from the lungs. A productive cough generally should not be suppressed—it
clears mucus from the lungs. There are many causes of a productive cough, such
- Viral illnesses. It is normal to have a
productive cough when you have a common cold. Coughing is often triggered by
mucus that drains down the back of the throat.
- Infections. An
infection of the lungs or upper airway passages can cause a cough. A productive
cough may be a symptom of
- Chronic lung disease. A
productive cough could be a sign that a disease such as
chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is
getting worse or that you have an infection.
- Stomach acid backing
up into the
esophagus . This type of coughing may be a symptom of
gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and may awaken
you from sleep.
- Nasal discharge (postnasal drip) draining down the back of the
throat. This can cause a productive cough or the
feeling that you constantly need to clear your throat. Experts disagree about
whether a postnasal drip or the viral illness that caused it is responsible for
- Smoking or other tobacco use. Productive coughs in a
person who smokes or uses other forms of tobacco is often a sign of lung damage
or irritation of the throat or esophagus.
A nonproductive cough is dry and
does not produce sputum. A dry, hacking cough may develop toward the end of a
cold or after exposure to an irritant, such as dust or smoke. There are many
causes of a nonproductive cough, such as:
- Viral illnesses. After a common cold, a dry
cough may last several weeks longer than other symptoms and often gets worse at
- Bronchospasm. A nonproductive cough,
particularly at night, may mean spasms in the bronchial tubes
(bronchospasm) caused by irritation.
- Allergies. Frequent sneezing
is also a common symptom of
- Medicines called ACE
inhibitors that are used to control
high blood pressure. Examples of ACE inhibitors
include captopril (Capoten), enalapril maleate (Vasotec), and lisinopril
(Prinivil, Zestoretic, or Zestril).
to dust, fumes, and chemicals in the work environment.
- Asthma. A
chronic dry cough may be a sign of mild asthma. Other symptoms may include
wheezing, shortness of breath, or a feeling of tightness in the chest. For more
information, see the topic
Asthma in Teens and Adults.
- Blockage of
the airway by an inhaled object, such as food or a pill. For more information,
see the topic
Swallowed or Inhaled Objects.
Many coughs are caused by a viral illness. Antibiotics
are not used to treat viral illnesses and do not alter the course of viral
infections. Unnecessary use of an antibiotic exposes you to the risks of an
allergic reaction and antibiotic side effects, such as
nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, rashes, and yeast infections. Antibiotics also may
kill beneficial bacteria and encourage the development of dangerous
evaluation of your health may help you identify other symptoms. Remember, a
cough is only a symptom, not a disease, and often the importance of your cough
can only be determined when other symptoms are evaluated. Coughs occur with
bacterial and viral respiratory infections. If you
have other symptoms, such as a sore throat, sinus pressure, or ear pain, see
the Related Topics section.
Check your symptoms to
decide if and when you should see a doctor.
Coughing is your body's way of
removing foreign substances and
mucus from your
lungs and upper airway passages . Productive coughs are often useful, and you
should not try to eliminate them. Sometimes, though, coughs are severe enough
to impair breathing or prevent rest. Home treatment can help you feel more
comfortable when you have a cough.
Home treatment for adults
dehydration. Fluids may help thin secretions and
soothe an irritated throat. Dry, hacking coughs respond to honey in hot water,
tea, or lemon juice.
- Elevate your head with extra pillows at night
to ease a dry cough.
- Try a cough drop to soothe an irritated
throat. Expensive medicine-flavored cough drops are no better than inexpensive
candy-flavored drops or hard candy. Most cough drops have no effect on the
- Use a humidifier to add moisture to the air. Use only water in the humidifier.
- Quit smoking and do not use other forms
of tobacco, especially while you have a cough. For more information on quitting
smoking, see the topic
- Avoid exposure to
inhaled irritants, such as smoke, dust, or other pollutants, or wear a face
mask that is appropriate for the exposure. Many kinds of face masks are
available. Check with your doctor or
pharmacist to determine which type of face mask will
provide you with the most benefit.
- If you suspect problems with
stomach acid may be contributing to your cough, see the topic
Cough preparations may help your
cough. Avoid cold remedies that combine medicines to treat many symptoms. It is
generally better to treat each symptom separately. There are two kinds of cough
medicines: expectorants and suppressants.
- Expectorants help thin
the mucus and make it easier to cough mucus up when you have a productive
- Use an expectorant if you have a cough that
produces thick mucus and you are having trouble coughing the mucus up. Don't
depend entirely on an expectorant to thin the mucus. Drink plenty of water
- Look for expectorants containing guaifenesin, such as
Robitussin, Mucinex, and Vicks 44E.
- Suppressants control or
suppress the cough reflex and work best for a dry, hacking cough that keeps you
- Use cough suppressants wisely. Don't
suppress a productive cough too much, unless it is keeping you from getting
enough rest. Coughing is useful because it brings up mucus from the lungs and
helps prevent bacterial infections. People with asthma and other lung diseases
need to cough.
- If you have a dry, hacking cough, ask your doctor
about an effective cough suppressant medicine.
- Look for suppressant
medicines containing dextromethorphan, such as Robitussin-DM or Vicks Dry
Hacking Cough. Studies show that over-the-counter cough medicines do not work
very well. And some of these medicines can cause problems if you use too much
of them. It is important to use medicines correctly and to keep them out of the
reach of children to prevent accidental use.
Cough preparation precautions
- Cough preparations can cause problems for
people with other health problems, such as
high blood pressure,
glaucoma, or an
enlarged prostate. Cough preparations may also
interact with other medicines, such as sedatives and certain antidepressants.
Read the package carefully or ask your pharmacist or doctor to help you choose
- Use cough preparations with caution if you are older than 60
or if you have chronic respiratory problems.
- Read the label so you
know what you are taking. Some cough preparations contain a large percentage of
alcohol. Others contain codeine. There are many choices. Ask your pharmacist to
- Do not take someone else's prescription cough
For more information on home treatment of respiratory
problems, see the Home Treatment section of the topic
Respiratory Problems, Age 12 and Older.
Medicine you can buy without a prescription
| Try a nonprescription
medicine to help treat your fever or pain:|
- Acetaminophen, such as
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs):
- Ibuprofen, such as Advil or
- Naproxen, such as Aleve or Naprosyn
- Aspirin (also a nonsteroidal
anti-inflammatory drug), such as Bayer or Bufferin
| Be sure to follow these
safety tips when you use a nonprescription medicine:|
- Carefully read and follow all directions
on the medicine bottle and box.
- Do not take more than the
- Do not take a medicine if you have had an
allergic reaction to it in the past.
you have been told to avoid a medicine, call your doctor before you take
- If you are or could be pregnant, do not take any medicine other
than acetaminophen unless your doctor has told you to.
- Do not give aspirin to anyone younger than age 20 unless your doctor tells you to.
Symptoms to watch for during home treatment
Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home
- Other symptoms develop, such as moderate to
severe chest wall pain with coughing, trouble breathing, a productive cough, or
- You start coughing up blood.
- A cough lasts
longer than 2 weeks without other respiratory symptoms.
become more severe or more frequent.
There is no sure way to prevent a cough.
To help reduce your risk:
- Wash your hands frequently during the
cold and flu season. This helps prevent the spread of a virus that may cause a
- Avoid people who have a cold or
influenza if possible.
- Don't smoke or use other forms of tobacco. A
dry, hacking "smoker's cough" means your lungs are constantly irritated. For
more information, see the topic
- Avoid exposure to
secondhand smoke, both at home and in the workplace.
- Increase your
fluid intake. This helps keep the mucus thin and helps you cough it up. It also
- Get a flu shot (influenza
vaccine) each year. For more information, see the topic
Influenza (Seasonal Flu).
- Get a pneumococcal shot if you are age 65 or older; if you have chronic lung
disease, such as
chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD); if you
smoke; or if you have a
health risk that increases the seriousness of your
- Make sure your immunizations are current, such as
pertussis to reduce your risk of getting whooping cough. For more information,
see the topic
To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.
You can help your
doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the
- How long have you had the cough?
often do you cough?
- Does the cough have a pattern, such as
worsening at night or becoming more frequent in the morning?
situations increase your coughing?
- Are you exposed to any
irritants, such as smoke, dust, or chemicals, in your home or
- Is the cough productive (brings up
sputum) or nonproductive (dry and hacking)? Be prepared
to describe the color (bloody, rusty, white, yellow, or green), amount, and
consistency of any sputum.
- Do you have other symptoms that may be
related to your cough, such as nasal drainage, fever, shortness of breath,
wheezing, or other suspected cold symptoms?
- What home treatment
have you tried? Did it help?
- What prescription and nonprescription
medicines or other treatments have you tried? Did they help?
prescription and nonprescription medicines do you take
- Have you ever been diagnosed with allergies or asthma?
Does anyone else in your family have allergies or asthma?
- Have you
- Do you have any
- Ear Problems and Injuries, Age 12 and Older
- Respiratory Problems, Age 12 and Older
- Sore Throat and Other Throat Problems
|By: ||Healthwise Staff ||Last Revised: May 9, 2013|
|Medical Review: ||William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine|
David Messenger, MD