A cough that lasts for weeks could be caused by smoking, postnasal drip, asthma, acid reflux, respiratory infections, COPD or another underlying problem.
A chronic cough is a cough that lasts eight weeks or longer in adults, or four weeks in children.
A chronic cough is more than just an annoyance. A chronic cough can interrupt your sleep and leave you feeling exhausted. Severe cases of chronic cough can cause vomiting, lightheadedness and even rib fractures.
While it can sometimes be difficult to pinpoint the problem that's triggering a chronic cough, the most common causes are tobacco use, postnasal drip, asthma and acid reflux. Fortunately, chronic cough typically disappears once the underlying problem is treated.
A chronic cough can occur with other signs and symptoms, which may include:
See your doctor if you have a cough that lingers for weeks, especially one that brings up sputum or blood, disturbs your sleep, or affects school or work.
An occasional cough is normal — it helps clear irritants and secretions from your lungs and prevents infection.
However, a cough that persists for weeks is usually the result of a medical problem. In many cases, more than one cause is involved.
The following causes, alone or in combination, are responsible for the majority of cases of chronic cough:
Less commonly, chronic cough may be caused by:
Being a current or former smoker is one of the leading risk factors for chronic cough. Frequent exposure to secondhand smoke also can lead to coughing and lung damage.
Having a persistent cough can be exhausting. Coughing can cause a variety of problems, including:
Your doctor will ask about your medical history and perform a physical exam. A thorough medical history and physical exam can provide important clues about a chronic cough. Your doctor may also order tests to look for the cause of your chronic cough.
However, many doctors opt to start treatment for one of the common causes of chronic cough rather than ordering expensive tests. If the treatment doesn't work, however, you may undergo testing for less common causes.
These simple, noninvasive tests, such as spirometry, are used to diagnose asthma and COPD. They measure how much air your lungs can hold and how fast you can exhale.
Your doctor may request an asthma challenge test, which checks how well you can breathe before and after inhaling the drug methacholine (Provocholine).
If the mucus that you cough up is colored, your doctor may want to test a sample of it for bacteria.
If your doctor isn't able to find an explanation for your cough, special scope tests may be considered to look for possible causes. These tests may include:
A spirometer is a diagnostic device that measures the amount of air you're able to breathe in and out. It also tracks the time it takes you to exhale completely after you take a deep breath.
A chest X-ray and spirometry, at a minimum, are typically ordered to find the cause of a chronic cough in children.
Determining the cause of chronic cough is crucial to effective treatment. In many cases, more than one underlying condition may be causing your chronic cough.
If you are currently smoking, your doctor will discuss with you your readiness to quit and provide assistance to achieve this goal.
If you're taking an ACE inhibitor medication, your doctor may switch you to another medicine that doesn't have cough as a side effect.
Medications used to treat chronic cough may include:
During the time your doctor is determining the reason for your cough and beginning treatment, your doctor may also prescribe a cough suppressant to try to speed your symptom relief.
Over-the-counter cough and cold medicines are intended to treat the symptoms of coughs and colds, not the underlying disease. Research suggests that these medicines haven't been proved to work any better than inactive medicine (placebo). More important, these medications have potentially serious side effects, including fatal overdoses in children younger than 2 years old.
Don't use over-the-counter medicines, except for fever reducers and pain relievers, to treat coughs and colds in children younger than 6 years old. Also, consider avoiding use of these medicines for children younger than 12 years old.
Follow the plan your doctor gives you for treating the cause of your cough. In the meantime, you can also try these tips to ease your cough:
While you may initially see your family doctor, he or she may refer you to a doctor who specializes in lung disorders (pulmonologist).
Before your appointment, make a list that includes:
Your doctor may ask some of the following questions:
Your doctor will ask additional questions based on your responses, symptoms and needs. Preparing and anticipating questions will help you make the most of your time with the doctor.