Why am I coughing?

Learn the difference between the four types of cough in adults

Coughing can be an annoying, sleep-disrupting symptom of any of a half-dozen illnesses. Here are four common types of cough, what causes coughing and what to do about a cough.

Wet cough

Commonly called a “chesty cough,” a wet cough occurs when mucus (phlegm) needs to be cleared from the lungs. Conditions that feature a wet cough include the common cold, allergies or sinusitis, flu, bronchitis, pneumonia, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Home treatments include:

  • Staying hydrated — water, of course, but many report hot tea with honey as soothing
  • Plenty of rest
  • Over-the-counter (OTC) cough and cold medicines and pain relievers
  • Cough drops

Be careful of OTC medicines. Some of them, such as pseudoephedrine, can elevate blood pressure, or have other negative interactions. Ask your doctor or pharmacist if an OTC is safe for you.

Dry cough

The little tickle at the back of your throat that makes you cough could be a symptom of a cold or the flu, or can result any time there is not enough mucus present. In most cases, dry cough will clear up on its own with the home treatments listed above.

Dry cough can also be caused by post-nasal drip, either from a cold, allergies or other illness.

A dry cough might be a sign of asthma, especially if accompanied by a tightening in the chest, wheezing and shortness of breath. Dry cough also may be a sign of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) when stomach acid travels into the throat, triggering the dry cough.

Whooping cough

With a signature barking cough and sharp intake of breath, pertussis (or whooping cough) is a highly contagious bacterial infection that spreads easily. Symptoms are similar to cold or flu, with the addition of a strong cough. Those with compromised immune systems, such as babies and older adults, may have trouble breathing. The best protection against whooping cough is to get the pertussis vaccine.

Chronic cough

This type of cough lasts longer than eight weeks and most commonly is caused by smoking. Other causes include asthma, allergies, GERD and some medications.

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COVID cough

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists cough as a typical symptom for most variants of COVID-19. As the virus changes over time, however, this symptom may be more or less common. It is important to take other symptoms into consideration, such as fever, chills, headache or body aches.

When to see a doctor

Cough is the body’s natural reflex to a variety of reasons, such as pollution or irritants. Sometimes coughing signals an emergency. Seek medical attention immediately if you have:

  • Allergic reaction such as anaphylaxis
  • Asthma or COPD that gets worse and does not respond to medication
  • Inhaled a foreign object
  • A cough that produces dark or thick blood or looks like coffee grounds, or appears to have food particles in it

If you have a cough of any kind that lasts longer than around three weeks or more, it’s time to see a doctor.

It is very rare, but occasionally coughing may be related to lung cancer. Talk to your doctor if you have a history of smoking, family history of lung cancer or long-term exposure to secondhand smoke.[templatera id=”144533″]

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