A cough is, ahem, your body's way of responding when something irritates your throat or airways. (1) Coughing, from throat-clearing to a wheezing cough to full-on hacking, can be voluntary or involuntary, short-term or long-lasting.
Coughing is the sudden expulsion of air from the lungs through the epiglottis, the little trapdoor that covers the entrance to your windpipe. (2) The incredible speed at which a cough occurs (estimated at 100 miles per hour) creates a strong force of air that helps clear your breathing passageways of unwanted irritants.
A cough is relatively painless, but it can be irritating or distracting to others, and the effort of coughing can leave you feeling achy and fatigued. An occasional cough is normal and nothing to worry about, but a cough that lasts for several weeks or more or one that produces discolored or bloody mucus may be a sign of a medical condition, according to the Mayo Clinic. (1)
Signs and Symptoms of a Cough
Coughs can be either acute or chronic. Acute coughs begin suddenly and usually last for less than three weeks, according to the Cleveland Clinic. (3) This type of cough is the one you most often get with a cold, flu, or acute bronchitis. (4)
Chronic coughs last longer than eight weeks (or longer than four weeks in children). (1) A chronic cough can wake you up at night when you’re sleeping and lead to fatigue. (5) It can also occur with other signs and symptoms, including:
- A runny or stuffy nose
- A feeling of liquid running down the back of your throat (postnasal drip)
- Frequent throat clearing and sore throat
- Wheezing and shortness of breath
- Heartburn or a sour taste in your mouth
- Rarely, coughing up blood
How Are Coughs Diagnosed?
To diagnose the cause of your cough, your doctor or healthcare provider will take a medical history, give you a physical exam, and may order some tests, such as a chest X-ray or lung function test. (3) They will also check your vital signs, like your temperature and the number of breaths you take per minute. Your doctor may ask you questions to figure out what type of cough you have and what is causing it, such as:
- If you use or previously used tobacco
- What kind of occupation you have or had
- How long you have been coughing
- How well you breathe when you are resting and when you are working hard
- If the cough is interrupting your sleep
- If anything comes up when you cough (like phlegm or blood)
- If you are taking any medications
- If you have a bad taste in your mouth
- If you have persistent bad breath
- If you have pain, especially in your face
- If you have lost weight without trying
Prognosis of Coughs
In healthy adults, acute cough is usually self-limiting and related to upper respiratory viral infections, meaning it tends to go away on its own without treatment, and rarely needs significant medical intervention. (6) The prognosis may vary for an older patient or someone whose immune system is compromised, and in such cases, an acute cough due to a flu or coronavirus may require medical treatment and hospitalization.
The prognosis for a chronic cough depends on the underlying problem and requires medical evaluation. (5)
Treatment and Medication Options for Coughs
How to Stop Coughing
A cough can be treated in a variety of ways, depending on the cause. For healthy adults, most cough remedies will involve self-care.
A cough that results from a virus can’t be treated with antibiotics. You can, however, soothe it with the following home remedies: (1)
- Keep hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids. Liquid helps thin the mucus in your throat, and warm liquids, such as broth, tea, or lemon juice, are soothing.
- Suck on cough drops or hard candies, which may ease a dry cough (one that doesn’t produce phlegm/mucus) and soothe an irritated throat.
- Have a spoonful of honey. One teaspoon of honey may help loosen a cough (never give honey to children younger than 1 year old because honey can contain bacteria harmful to infants).
- Use a cool mist humidifier or take a steamy shower to moisturize the air.
Other natural remedies include:
- Elevating your head with extra pillows when you’re sleeping
- Gargling warm salt water to remove mucus and soothe your throat
Cough medicines are typically used only for acute coughs that cause a lot of discomfort, interfere with sleep, and are not associated with any potentially more serious symptoms. (1)
Over-the-counter cough and cold medicines, like cough syrups and cough suppressants, may help you treat the symptoms of a cough. But research suggests that these medicines don’t work any better than placebos (inactive medicines). (1)
If your cough is caused by an infection, your doctor might prescribe an antibiotic or antiviral medication. (3)
If you have GERD, you may be prescribed a proton pump inhibitor, which is a kind of medicine that reduces the amount of stomach acid produced by glands in the lining of your stomach.
Learn More About Home Remedies for Coughs
Prevention of Coughs
Many coughs are caused by the common cold. To help reduce your risk of getting a cold, wash your hands often with soap and water for 20 seconds (use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer when soap and water are not available), avoid close contact with sick people, and try not to touch your face with unwashed hands, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (7)
Home remedies like staying hydrated and moisturizing your bedroom with a humidifier can help you ease a cough if you already have one. Also avoid tobacco smoke, which can make your cough worse or may be the main cause of it.
RELATED: 10 Tips for Day and Night Cough Relief
Research and Statistics: Who Has a Cough
Cough is the most common symptom that patients report when they visit healthcare providers. (3)
In the United States, cough is the most common reason why people seek medical attention and is the second most common reason for a general medical examination, adding up to more than 26 million office visits annually. (9)
Chronic cough is cited as the reason for up to 38 percent of pulmonary outpatient visits.
Resources We Love
The Mayo Clinic is a nonprofit organization that focuses on clinical practice, education, and research. It provides information on cough, chronic cough, croup, and other cough-related conditions.
MedlinePlus is a service of the National Library of Medicine (NLM), the world's largest medical library, which is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
The CDC is the nation’s health protection agency, a component of the Department of Health and Human Services. The CDC fights disease and provides health information that helps Americans stay safe.
Additional reporting by Jennifer D'Angelo Friedman.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
- Cough. Mayo Clinic. June 21, 2019.
- Coughing. MedlinePlus. April 2020.
- Cough. Cleveland Clinic. March 30, 2018.
- Cough. MedlinePlus. April 30, 2020.
- Chronic Cough. Mayo Clinic. July 9, 2019.
- Recommendations for the Management of Cough in Adults. Thorax. September 2006.
- Common Colds: Protect Yourself and Others. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. February 11, 2019.
- Coughing Up Blood. Mayo Clinic. April 7, 2018.
- Assessment and Management of Chronic Cough. Comparative Effectiveness Reviews. January 2013.
- Symptoms of Coronavirus. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. March 20, 2020.
- Q&A on Coronaviruses (COVID-19). World Health Organization. April 8, 2020.
- Cough. Chest Foundation. January 2018.
- Testing for COVID-19. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. April 17, 2020.
- Croup. Mayo Clinic. April 11, 2019.