Feb 24, 2022 11:00 AM

Author: University of Utah Health Communications


An occasional cough—a normal reaction to a tickling sensation in your throat—helps clear irritants and secretions from your lungs and prevents infection. But if you develop a chronic cough that persists for weeks, you should find out if you have a medical problem resulting in interrupted sleep, leaving you tired and exhausted. In severe cases, chronic coughing can also be accompanied by vomiting, lightheadedness or headaches, loss of bladder control, and fractured ribs.

In adults, chronic cough lasts eight weeks or longer, and in children, four weeks or longer. While it can sometimes be difficult to pinpoint the problem triggering a chronic cough, the most common causes include the following:

Chronic cough diagnosis

If your chronic cough isn’t getting better and you’ve already been treated by your primary care physician and specialists, you may be able to find a chronic cough clinic near you. 

To determine whether you have chronic cough, health care professionals may use a scope to investigate your upper airway and perform a laryngeal exam to evaluate the causes of your persistent, disabling cough. They may also perform a comprehensive evaluation to see if pulmonary, ear, nose, throat (ENT), laryngeal, or sleep problems might be causing your cough.

A substantial number of patients persist with their cough despite an extensive investigation into possible clinical causes. Krishna M. Sundar, MD, professor of pulmonary, critical care, and sleep and the medical director of U of U Health’s Sleep-Wake Center, reported a substantial proportion of patients persist with their cough that can’t be attributed to a common cause. “The terminology of unexplained chronic cough or refractory chronic cough highlights the diagnostic and therapeutic problems in 5–42 percent of chronic cough patients,” Sundar observes.

A persistent cough can be caused by a condition called cough hypersensitivity syndrome. When your cough reflex gets more sensitive, it can cause you to cough when you're exposed to even small stimuli like talking, smelling perfumes, and drinking cold liquid. Cough hypersensitivity syndrome often gets better after behavioral speech therapy techniques offered at U of U Health’s Chronic Cough Clinic.

Treatments for underlying conditions

If an underlying condition is determined to be causing your chronic cough, a health care professional may combine pulmonary, ENT, and behavioral speech therapies, as well as standard treatments when other remedies haven’t worked.

H20
You can ease your cough with water–whether you drink it or add it to the air with a steamy shower or vaporizer.

Anitihistamines or cough medicine
If you have a cold or the flu, you may find antihistamines may work better than nonprescription cough medicines. You shouldn’t administer cough medicine to children under the age of four. For children over four years of age, contact your doctor. 

Quit tobacco use
If your chronic cough is caused by tobacco use, your best bet is to quit. Be patient as you may cough even more after quitting because cough receptors start to grow back as the lining of air tubes heals. When that occurs, you may think quitting is making your coughing worse. By four weeks, your cough should subside, and you’ll be on your way to a tobacco and cough-free existence.

Diagnostic testing
For other causes of persistent coughs, treatments usually follow the standard therapy for the underlying causes discovered during diagnostic testing. For example, for acid reflux cough, a patient may be put on an eight-week trial of powerful antacids. For postnasal drip, which is the most common cause of chronic cough, the patient may be prescribed antihistamines, decongestants, or nasal steroids.

If you have concerns about your cough, contact your primary care doctor. They can refer you to a specialist or a chronic cough clinic to help improve your cough and, consequently, your well-being.

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