Coughs - Topic Overview
Coughing is the body's way of removing
foreign material or mucus from the lungs and upper airwayor of reacting to an irritated airway.
Coughs have distinctive traits you can learn to recognize. A cough is only a
symptom, not a disease, and often the importance of your cough can be
determined only when other symptoms are evaluated.
A productive cough produces phlegm or
mucus (sputum). The mucus may have drained down the back of the throat from the
nose or sinuses (postnasal drainage) or may have come up from the lungs. A
productive cough generally should not be suppressed; it clears mucus from the
lungs. There are many causes of a productive cough, such as:
illnesses. It is normal to have a productive cough when you have a common cold.
Coughing is often triggered by mucus that drains down the back of the throat.
An infection of the lungs or upper airway passages can cause a cough. A
productive cough may be a symptom of pneumonia, bronchitis, sinusitis, or
disease. A productive cough could be a sign that a disease such as chronic
obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is getting worse or that you have an
backing up into the esophagus. This type of coughing may be a symptom of
gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and may awaken you from sleep.
discharge draining down the back of the throat (postnasal drip syndrome). This
can cause a productive cough or the feeling that you constantly need to clear
your throat. Experts disagree about whether a postnasal drip or the viral
illness that caused it is responsible for the cough.
other tobacco use. Productive coughs in a person who smokes or uses other forms
of tobacco is often a sign of lung damage or irritation of the throat or
A nonproductive cough is dry and does
not produce sputum. A dry, hacking cough may develop toward the end of a cold
or after exposure to an irritant, such as dust or smoke. There are many causes
of a nonproductive cough, such as:
illnesses. After a common cold, a dry cough may last several weeks longer than
other symptoms and often gets worse at night.
A nonproductive cough, particularly at night, may indicate spasms in the
bronchial tubes (bronchospasm) caused by irritation.
Frequent sneezing is also a common symptom of allergic rhinitis.
called ACE inhibitors that are used to control high blood pressure. Examples of
ACE inhibitors include captopril (Capoten), enalapril maleate (Vasotec), and
lisinopril (Prinivil, Zestril, or Zestoretic).
dust, fumes, and chemicals in the work environment.
chronic dry cough may be a sign of mild asthma. Other symptoms may include wheezing,
shortness of breath, or a feeling of tightness in the chest. For more
information, see the topic Asthma.
the airway by an inhaled object, such as food or a pill. For more information,
see the topic Swallowed Objects.
Coughs - Topic Overview
Children may develop coughs from
diseases or causes that usually do not affect adults, such as:
the lower respiratory system (such as caused by respiratory syncytial virus, or
the airway by an inhaled object, such as food, a piece of a balloon, or a small
toy. For more information, see the topic Swallowed Objects.
secondhand smoke from parents or caregivers who smoke.
psychological problems. A dry, nonproductive "psychogenic cough" is
seen more frequently in children than in adults.
Many coughs are caused by a viral
illness. Antibiotics are not used to treat viral illnesses and do not alter the
course of viral infections. Unnecessary use of an antibiotic exposes you to the
risks of an allergic reaction and antibiotic side effects, such as nausea,
vomiting, diarrhea, rashes, and yeast infections. Antibiotics also may kill
beneficial bacteria and encourage the development of dangerous
A careful evaluation of your health
may help you identify other symptoms. Remember, a cough is only a symptom, not
a disease, and often the importance of your cough can only be determined when
other symptoms are evaluated. Coughs occur with bacterial and viral respiratory
infections. If you have other symptoms, such as a sore throat, sinus pressure,
or ear pain, see the Related Information section.
Review the Emergencies and Check Your
Symptoms sections to determine if and when you need to see a doctor.
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