Lots of things can trigger a cough, from smoke and dust to allergies and the common cold. In fact, a cough is actually an important player in the body’s defense against disease.
Coughing expels mucus, microbes, and foreign particles from the respiratory tract, protecting the lungs from infection and inflammation.
The chronic cough
Everyone coughs, and nobody worries about an occasional cough. Many acute illnesses — ranging from hay fever and the common cold to bronchitis and pneumonia — produce recurrent coughs. But the cough that accompanies acute illnesses resolves in a matter of a few days to a few weeks. In contrast, a chronic cough is variously defined as one that lingers for more than three to eight weeks, sometimes lasting for months or even years, according to Harvard Medical School publications.
Chronic coughing is common, so frequent that it rates as one of the most common reasons for seeing a doctor.
What causes chronic coughing?
Smoking is the leading cause. Sooner or later, most cigarette smokers develop a chronic “smoker’s cough.” Chemical irritation is responsible — but the same noxious chemicals that cause the simple smoker’s cough can lead to far more serious conditions, such as bronchitis, emphysema, pneumonia, and lung cancer. The chronic cough is always a cause of concern for smokers.
A lingering cough is also a worry for nonsmokers. Fortunately, benign problems are responsible for most chronic coughs in nonsmokers.
Dozens of conditions can cause a recurrent, lingering cough, but the lion’s share are caused by just five:
3.Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
5.Treatment with ACE inhibitors, used for high blood pressure.
Many people have several of these conditions, but in nonsmokers, the first three, singly or in combination, account for nearly all chronic coughs.
When to worry about a cough
Although a chronic cough is usually not serious, the warning symptoms call for prompt medical care:
- Fever, especially if it’s high or prolonged
- Copious sputum production
- Coughing up blood
- Shortness of breath
- Weight loss
- Weakness, fatigue, loss of appetite
- Chest pain that’s not caused by the cough itself
- Night sweats