Briefly discusses causes of coughs, including common cold, bronchitis, pneumonia, asthma, GERD, COPD, choking, or chemicals in the air. Offers interactive tool to help decide when to seek care. Also offers home treatment and prevention tips.
Coughs, Age 12 and Older
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Mental changes, such as feeling confused or much less
Extreme fatigue (to the point where it's hard for you to
Pain in adults and older children
Severe pain (8 to 10): The pain
is so bad that you can't stand it for more than a few hours, can't sleep, and
can't do anything else except focus on the pain.
Moderate pain (5 to 7): The pain is bad enough to disrupt your
normal activities and your sleep, but you can tolerate it for hours or days.
Moderate can also mean pain that comes and goes even if it's severe when it's
Mild pain (1 to 4): You notice the pain,
but it is not bad enough to disrupt your sleep or activities.
Severe trouble breathing means:
You cannot talk at all.
You have to
work very hard to breathe.
You feel like you can't get enough
You do not feel alert or cannot think clearly.
Moderate trouble breathing means:
It's hard to talk in full
It's hard to breathe with activity.
Mild trouble breathing means:
You feel a little out of breath but can still talk.
It's becoming hard to breathe with activity.
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. 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
How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.