Filed under: Respiratory Health
Chronic cough — one lasting eight weeks or longer — is more than just an annoyance. A chronic cough can ruin your sleep and leave you feeling exhausted. Severe cases of chronic cough can result in vomiting, rib fractures and lightheadedness.
While it can sometimes be difficult to pinpoint the problem that's triggering your chronic cough, the most common causes are tobacco use, postnasal drip, asthma and acid reflux — the backflow of stomach acid, which can irritate your throat. Chronic cough typically disappears once the underlying problem is treated.
A chronic cough can occur with other signs and symptoms, which may include:
When to see a doctor
See your doctor if you have a cough that lingers, especially one that brings up sputum or blood, disturbs your sleep or affects your work.
An occasional cough is normal — it helps clear foreign substances and secretions from your lungs and prevents infection. But a cough that persists for long periods of time is usually the result of an underlying problem. Examples include:
Being a current or former smoker is one of the leading risk factors for chronic cough. Frequent exposure to secondhand smoke also can lead to coughing and lung damage.
Women tend to have more-sensitive cough reflexes, so they're more likely to develop a chronic cough than are men.
Having a persistent cough can be exhausting. The physical action of coughing depletes your energy reserves and disrupts your sleep. A chronic cough can also cause:
While you may initially consult your family physician, he or she may refer you to a doctor who specializes in lung disorders (pulmonologist).
What you can do
You may want to write a list that includes:
What to expect from your doctor
A thorough medical history and physical exam can provide important clues about a chronic cough. Your doctor may ask some of the following questions:
Your medical history and physical examination help determine which tests your doctor will order. The goal of testing is to identify the underlying cause of your chronic cough.
Lung function tests
These simple, noninvasive tests measure how much air your lungs can hold and how fast you can exhale. Sometimes you may also have an asthma challenge test, which checks how well you can breathe before and after inhaling a drug called methacholine (Provocholine).
If the mucus that you cough up is discolored, your doctor may want you to test a sample of it for bacteria.
These tests use a thin, flexible tube equipped with a light and camera to visualize structures within your body. To evaluate possible causes of chronic cough, this equipment may be inserted into your:
Determining the cause of chronic cough is crucial to effective treatment. In some cases, more than one underlying condition may be causing your chronic cough.
Medications used to treat chronic cough may include:
In many cases, there are measures you can take at home to help ease your chronic cough. Examples include: