What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Cough?
When you cough, mucus may come up. Coughing helps clear the mucus in your airways from a cold, bronchitis, or other condition. Rarely, people cough up blood. If this happens, you should call your doctor right away.
A cough may be a symptom of a medical condition. Thus, it may occur with other signs and symptoms of that condition. For example, if you have a cold, you may have a runny or stuffy nose. If you have gastroesophageal reflux disease, you may have a sour taste in your mouth.
A chronic cough can make you feel tired because you use a lot of energy to cough. It also can prevent you from sleeping well and interfere with work and socializing. Chronic cough also can cause headache, chest pain, loss of bladder control, sweating, and, rarely, fractured ribs.
How Is the Cause of Cough Diagnosed?
Your doctor will diagnose the cause of your cough using your medical history, a physical exam, and the results from tests.
Your doctor will likely ask questions about your cough. He or she may ask how long you've had it, whether you're coughing anything up (such as mucus), and how much you cough.
Your doctor also may ask:
- About your medical history, including whether you have allergies, asthma, or other medical conditions.
- Whether you have heartburn or a sour taste in your mouth. These may be signs of gastroesophageal reflux disease.
- Whether you've recently had a cold or the flu.
- Whether you smoke or spend time around others who smoke.
- Whether you've been around air pollution, a lot of dust, or fumes.
To check for signs of problems related to cough, your doctor will use a stethoscope to listen to your lungs. He or she will listen for wheezing, which is a whistling or squeaky sound when you breathe or other abnormal sounds.
Based on the results of your medical history and physical exam, your doctor may recommend tests. For example, if you have symptoms of GERD, your doctor may recommend a pH probe. This test measures the acid level of the fluid in your throat.
Other tests may include:
- An exam of the mucus from your nose or throat. This test can show whether you have a bacterial infection.
- A chest x ray. A chest x ray takes a picture of your heart and lungs. This test can help diagnose conditions such as pneumonia and lung cancer.
- Lung function tests. These tests measure the size of your lungs, how much air you can breathe in and out, how fast you can breathe air out, and how well your lungs deliver oxygen to your blood. Lung function tests can help diagnose asthma and other conditions.
- An x ray of the sinuses. This test can help diagnose a sinus infection.
How Is Cough Treated?
The best way to treat a cough is to treat its cause. However, sometimes the cause is unknown. Other treatments, such as medicines and a vaporizer, can help relieve the cough itself.
Treating the Cause of a Cough
Acute and Sub acute Cough
An acute cough lasts less than 3 weeks. A common cold or other upper respiratory infection most often causes an acute cough. Examples of other upper respiratory infections include the flu, pneumonia, and whooping cough. An acute cough usually goes away after the illness that caused it is over.
A sub acute cough lasts 3 to 8 weeks. This type of cough remains even after a cold or other respiratory infection is over.
Studies show that antibiotics and cold medicines can't cure a cold. However, your doctor may prescribe medicines to treat another cause of an acute or sub acute cough. For example, antibiotics may be given for pneumonia.
A chronic cough lasts more than 8 weeks. Postnasal drip, asthma, and gastroesophageal reflux disease most often cause chronic cough.
Postnasal drip is mucus that runs down your throat from the back of your nose. A sinus infection, cold, or ongoing exposure to irritants and allergens can cause postnasal drip.
If you have a sinus infection, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics. If allergens or irritants are the cause of postnasal drip, your doctor may advise you to try to avoid them if possible.
If you have asthma, try to avoid irritants and allergens that make your asthma worse. Take your asthma medicines as your doctor prescribes.
GERD occurs when acid from your stomach backs up into your throat. Your doctor may prescribe a medicine to reduce acid in your stomach. Waiting 3 to 4 hours after a meal before you lie down and sleeping with your head raised may help relieve GERD symptoms.
Smoking also can cause a chronic cough. If you smoke, it's important to quit. Talk to your doctor about programs and products that can help you quit smoking. Also, try to avoid secondhand smoke.
Many hospitals have programs that help people quit smoking, or hospital staff can refer you to a program.
Other causes of chronic cough include respiratory infections, chronic bronchitis, bronchiectasis, lung cancer, and heart failure. Treatments for these causes may involve medicines, procedures, and other therapies. Treatment also may include avoiding irritants and allergens and quitting smoking.
If your chronic cough is due to a medicine you're taking, your doctor may prescribe a different medicine.
Treating the Cough Rather Than the Cause
Coughing is important because it helps clear your airways of irritants, such as smoke and mucus. It also helps prevent infection.
Cough medicines usually are used only when the cause of the cough is unknown and the cough causes a lot of discomfort.
Medicines can help control a cough and make mucus easier to cough up. Your doctor may recommend medicines such as:
- Prescription cough suppressants, also called antitussives. These medicines can help relieve a cough. However, they're usually used when nothing else works. No evidence shows that over-the-counter cough suppressants relieve cough.
- Expectorants. These medicines may loosen mucus and make it easier to cough up.
- Bronchodilators. These medicines relax your airways.
Other treatments also may relieve an irritated throat and loosen mucus. Examples include using a cool-mist humidifier or steam vaporizer and drinking enough fluids. Examples of fluids are water, soup, and juice. Ask your doctor how much fluid you need.
Cough in Children
No evidence shows that cough and cold medicines relieve a cough in children. These medicines can even harm children. Talk to your child's doctor about your child's cough and how to treat it.