A cough is your body’s way of responding when something is irritating your throat or airways1. It is a spontaneous reflex that happens when something like mucus, germs or dust irritate your throat and airways, and your body automatically responds by coughing2.
These types of irritants stimulate nerves that send a message to your brain, which then tells muscles in your chest and abdomen to push air out of your lungs, to force the irritant out1.
While an occasional cough is normal, a cough that persists may be a sign of a medical condition or illness. By definition, a cough is considered “acute” if it lasts less than three weeks. A cough that lasts longer than eight weeks, or four weeks in children, is defined as “chronic”1.
There are many causes of acute coughs. These include the common cold, influenza (the flu), inhaling of irritants such as smoke, dust or chemicals, pneumonia and whooping cough. Common causes of chronic coughs can include allergies, asthma, bronchitis, postnasal drip or Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)1. This digestive disorder occurs when stomach acid frequently backs up into the oesophagus, causing heartburn. When the acid rises into the throat it can also cause a dry cough2.
Other causes of coughing include tuberculosis, nasal and sinus infection, COVID-19, emphysema, laryngitis, lung cancer and the use of certain medications, to name a few1.
When it comes to coughing, there are many myths and untruths that exist.
One inaccuracy is that antibiotics can be effective to treat the cause of all coughs. The truth is that antibiotics usually kill bacteria, but they are not effective against viruses3. Upper respiratory tract infections, which include infections of the nose and throat and are the most common cause of coughing related to illness, are almost always caused by viruses. These include the common cold, viral laryngitis and influenza2.
Another myth is that all coughs are caused by an infection. While viral or bacterial infections do cause a cough, there are many other causes of a cough2.
These vary from cigarette smoking, reflux, allergies and inhaling of irritants to more serious causes such as lung cancer and a pulmonary embolism, which is a potentially life-threatening condition where a blood clot travels to the lungs causing sudden shortness of breath and can sometimes cause a dry cough2.
Furthermore, a cough itself is not contagious but can be a method of spreading a viral or bacterial infectious disease if the disease is transmitted by airborne droplets4.
Coughs also come in a variety of forms, including a dry cough that does not product mucus, a wet cough that produces mucus or sputum4.
There are a variety of home remedies and over-the-counter cough syrups and treatments that can assist in easing different types of cough symptoms1,2.While coughing is common and often no cause for concern1, see your doctor if the cough does not ease after a few weeks, or if the cough is accompanied by thick greenish-yellow phlegm, wheezing, fever, unexpected weight loss or shortness of breath or fainting as well as if you or a family member is coughing up bloody or pink-tinged phlegm1.
DISCLAIMER: This editorial has been commissioned and brought to you by iNova Pharmaceuticals. Content in this editorial is for general information only and is not intended to provide medical or
other professional advice.
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- Mayo Clinic. Symptoms of Cough (2020) at https://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/cough/basics/when -to-see-doctor/sym-20050846 (website accessed on 5 April 2021).
- American Lung Association. Learn about cough (2021) at https://www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/warning-signs-of-lung-disease/cough/diagnosing-treating (website accessed on 5 April 2021)
- Mayo Clinic. Bacterial vs. viral infections: How do they differ? (2020) at https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/infectious-diseases/expert-answers/infectious-disease/faq-20058098 (website accessed on 5 April 2021)
- What is a cough? (2020) at https://www.medicinenet.com/is_a_cough_contagious/article.htm (website accessed on 5 April 2021)