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Cough: Definition, symptoms, causes & treatment

Team AckoDec 13, 2023

When you Cough, your throat and chest muscles squeeze together to force air out of your lungs at high speed. This expels any irritants or fluids that are in your airways, helping to clear them out. Coughing can also help clear mucus from your airways. The condition usually goes away on its own without any medical treatment. Depending on the cause, this condition may last anywhere from a few days to several weeks. Most of the time, it can be treated at home with over-the-counter medications and home care remedies. This article gives an overview of Cough, including frequently asked questions.




Signs of Cough

Here is the list of common symptoms of Cough.

  • A dry, hacking Cough

  • A chesty Cough producing mucus

  • Shortness of breath

  • Wheezing or whistling sound when breathing

  • Pain or tightness in the chest

  • Feeling tired or exhausted

  • Fever

  • Runny or blocked nose

  • A scratchy sensation in the throat

  • Coughing up blood or coloured phlegm

  • Loss of appetite

Causes of Cough

Coughs can be caused by a variety of reasons, including respiratory infections (such as the common cold), allergies, smoking, asthma, GERD (acid reflux), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and some medications. In some cases, it may be necessary to consult a doctor to determine the underlying cause of a Cough.

Types of Cough

There are five types of Coughs, dry, wet, croupy, paroxysmal and whooping.

  1. Dry Coughs tend to be abrupt and are often caused by irritants such as allergens, pollutants, or a virus.

  2. Wet Coughs bring up mucus and are often caused by an infection or buildup of fluid in the lungs.

  3. A croupy Cough has a distinct barking or hoarse sound and often occurs in children with upper respiratory infections.

  4. Paroxysmal Coughs become worse with laughing, crying, or physical activity.

  5. Whooping Cough produces a loud, high-pitched "whoop" before gasping for air.

Risk factors 

The following are the risk factors for developing a Cough.

  • Exposure to air pollution, secondhand smoke, and dust.

  • Allergens such as pollen, pet dander, dust mites, and mould.

  • Viral infections such as the common cold, the flu, and various other respiratory viruses.

  • Bacterial infections such as whooping Cough, pneumonia, and tuberculosis.

  • Heartburn or acid reflux.

  • Medications, such as ACE inhibitors.

  • Asthma, COPD, and other chronic respiratory conditions.

  • Reactions to certain foods or beverages.

  • Objects lodged in the throat.

  • Vocal abuse, such as screaming or shouting too much.

  • Stress or anxiety.

Complications of Cough             

Complications associated with a chronic Cough can include a decrease in lung function and an increase in airway irritation and inflammation. It can also lead to difficulty sleeping, fatigue, and decreased productivity.

In severe cases, it can cause tissue damage and bleeding in the lungs. In addition, a chronic Cough can disrupt the quality of life and create feelings of isolation, embarrassment, and anxiety. Other potential complications can include worsened asthma, pneumonia, and rib fractures.


Coughs are usually diagnosed based on a physical examination and a review of the patient's medical history. A doctor may ask questions about the type of cough, how long it has been present, and any other symptoms the patient may be experiencing.

Also, a doctor may order the following diagnostic tests.

1. Bronchoscopy

Bronchoscopy is a diagnostic procedure used to view the inside of the lungs and airways. During the procedure, a flexible tube called a bronchoscope is inserted through the nose or mouth and down the windpipe. The bronchoscope is equipped with a tiny camera that sends images to a monitor. This procedure can help diagnose the cause of a cough, locate tumours or other obstructions in the airways, identify sources of bleeding, and take tissue samples from the lungs.

2. Rhinoscopy

This procedure is generally used to examine the nasal cavity and sinuses. It can help diagnose the cause of a Cough as well as identify sources of bleeding or infection in the sinuses.

3. Chest X-rays

Chest X-rays are a common diagnostic test for evaluating the lungs and other structures in the chest. They may be recommended for a person who is coughing to help determine the cause of the Cough, as well as to identify any underlying conditions such as pneumonia, cysts, or tumours. Chest X-rays can also help identify fluid buildup in the lungs and certain types of inflammation.

4. Blood tests

Blood tests may be recommended to evaluate a person's general health and to rule out underlying causes of a Cough. A complete blood count (CBC) can provide information about the number of red and white blood cells in the body. Tests, such as erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) and C-reactive protein (CRP), can help detect inflammation.

5. Sputum sample or throat swab

A sputum sample or throat swab may be taken to collect and analyse samples of secretions from the lungs or throat. This test can be used to detect the presence of bacteria or viruses that may be causing a Cough. It can also help diagnose other conditions, such as pneumonia or tuberculosis.

Depending on the cause of the Cough, the doctor might also recommend specific medications or lifestyle changes. If a specific cause is determined, further treatments may be necessary.

Different treatments for Cough

Here is the list of treatments and home remedies you can consider to treat Cough.

  1. Over-the-counter medications: Common over-the-counter medications include antihistamines, which can reduce nasal congestion and Cough suppressants. 

  2. Steam inhalation: Breathing in the steam from a bowl of hot water or from a hot shower can help to break down mucus, making it easier to Cough up.

  3. Honey: Honey is traditionally used to soothe sore throats and can be added to hot drinks.

  4. Ginger: Ginger may reduce inflammation and soothe sore throats. It can be added to tea or taken in capsule form.

  5. Homoeopathic remedies: Some homoeopathic remedies such as Bryonia alba, Drosera and Ipecac can help ease a cough. But it’s best to consult a homoeopath who can advise on the best remedy for an individual’s case.

  6. Herbal remedies: Herbal remedies such as elderberry, garlic and slippery elm are known to ease a cough.

  7. Saltwater gargles: Gargling with warm salt water may relieve sore throats and reduce mucus.

  8. Rest: Getting enough rest is key to helping your body fight off a Cough.

  9. Drink plenty of fluids: Drinking plenty of fluids can keep mucus thin, making it easier to Cough up. Warm drinks like herbal tea can also soothe a sore throat.

Prevention of Cough

To prevent a Cough, it is important to avoid the triggers that can cause it. This includes avoiding smoke and air pollution, managing allergies, and avoiding contact with people who are sick. Also, it is vital to get plenty of rest, drink plenty of fluids, and use a humidifier to keep the air moist. If necessary, medications that loosen mucus and reduce inflammation can also be used.

Frequently asked questions

Here are some common queries and answers regarding Coughs.


How to know if it is a viral and a bacterial Cough?

Viral and bacterial Coughs can be tricky to distinguish since they share many similar symptoms. However, a bacterial infection usually causes a greater intensity of coughing that can bring up thick mucus. Viral Coughs are usually dry and accompanied by other cold symptoms such as sore throat, sneezing, runny nose, etc.

How to treat a cough?

Most Coughs can be treated with over-the-counter medications such as syrups and antihistamines. Home remedies such as drinking warm beverages, using steam or inhaling menthol vapours, and gargling with salt water can also help reduce symptoms. 

When to seek medical help? 

A Cough that lasts longer than 3 weeks may require medical attention since it may be a sign of a more serious health condition. Other signs include difficulty breathing, coughing up blood, chest pain, and a fever.


Disclaimer: The content on this page is generic and shared only for informational and explanatory purposes. Please consult a doctor before making any health-related decisions.

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