Understanding Adult Cough: A Simple Overview


2 min read

a man holding his hand up in front of his face
a man holding his hand up in front of his face
Understanding Cough: A Comprehensive Overview

Coughing is a natural reflex designed to keep the airways clear, including the trachea and bronchi within the lungs (figure 1). It helps prevent foreign particles from entering these vital pathways, reducing potential issues.

While occasional coughing is normal, it can also indicate underlying illnesses. Coughs are categorized as "dry" when they don't produce mucus and "wet" or "productive" when they do. Coughs can range from mild to severe, sometimes impacting breathing.

Common Causes of Cough

In adults, prevalent cough triggers include:

- Viral infections like the common cold, flu, and COVID-19. Typically, viral coughs last around one to two weeks, but can sometimes persist longer.

- Smoking or vaping

- Postnasal drip, resulting from colds, allergies, or sinus infections

- Lung conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

- Acid reflux, where stomach acid flows back into the esophagus

- Adverse effects of blood pressure medications known as ACE inhibitors

Testing for Coughs

Depending on your symptoms and context, tests might be recommended, including:

- Swabs to detect COVID-19

- Chest X-rays

- Breathing tests to assess lung function

- Allergy skin tests

- CT scans of the chest or sinuses

- Lab tests on coughed-up mucus

- Scopes to examine the nose, sinuses, airway, or lungs

- Tests for acid reflux, often involving a thin tube placed down the esophagus

Home Care for Cough

You can alleviate cough symptoms at home by:

- Using a cool mist humidifier

- Consuming cough drops or hard candy

- Drinking warm liquids like tea

- Avoiding smoking and secondhand smoke

- Managing allergies by avoiding triggers

- Trying over-the-counter cold and cough medicine to thin mucus

- Following your healthcare provider's advice for acid reflux

Treating Different Causes of Cough

- Antibiotics for bacterial infections, while viral infections need supportive care

- Medications for postnasal drip

- Inhaler medicines for asthma and COPD

- Acid-blocking medications for acid reflux

- Switching medications if cough is an ACE inhibitor side effect

- Medicines to alleviate severe coughing when the cause is unclear, usually as a last resort due to potential side effects

When to Seek Medical Attention

Contact your doctor if:

- Breathing difficulties or wheezing arise

- Fever or chest pain accompany the cough

- Blood or colored mucus is coughed up

- Coughing triggers vomiting

- The cough worsens or lasts more than two weeks

- Weight loss occurs alongside the cough