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A chronic cough isn’t related to specific illness or health concern. Defined as a cough that lasts more than 8 weeks, a chronic cough can include symptoms so severe that they negatively impact your quality of life.

With the help of our skilled team at The University of Kansas Health System, we can identify the underlying cause of your chronic cough and help you get your life back on track.

What is a chronic cough?

A cough is a normal physical response to airway irritation or illness. Coughing helps move particles and other irritants out of your lungs to keep your throat and airway clear of dust, germs and mucus.

Many common health conditions include recurrent coughing as one of the symptoms. However, a chronic cough is diagnosed when you have a persistent cough that isn’t caused by an acute (short-term) health condition like a cold. Lasting 8 weeks or more in adults and 4 weeks or more in children, a chronic cough can be either wet or dry.

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Types of chronic coughs

Doctors categorize a chronic cough into 2 different types:

Chronic cough symptoms and risks

The primary symptom of chronic coughing is, of course, an ongoing cough. Many people notice other symptoms in addition to persistent coughing:

  • A tickle in your throat or frequent throat clearing
  • Acid reflux or heartburn
  • Fever
  • Hoarseness or sore throat
  • Postnasal drip (the feeling of sinus drainage down the back of your throat)
  • Runny nose
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing

You may notice more serious symptoms in combination with your chronic cough as well:

  • Chest pain
  • Coughing up blood
  • Headaches or dizziness
  • Heartburn
  • High fever
  • Painful cough, including rib pain that could indicate a fracture from excessive coughing
  • Symptoms that consistently interrupt your sleep
  • Vomiting due to forceful coughing

There are several possible causes and risk factors for developing chronic cough:

  • Allergies
  • Asthma
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease
  • Environmental exposures to dust or chemical irritants
  • Lung cancer
  • Postnasal drip
  • Respiratory tract infections or health conditions, including whooping cough
  • Sinus problems
  • Smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke (active smokers, former smokers and those exposed to secondhand smoke all carry a higher risk for chronic cough compared to a nonsmoker)

Some blood pressure medications may also cause a chronic cough as a side effect.

Chronic cough diagnosis and screening

When diagnosing a chronic cough, the goal is to identify the underlying cause. In some cases, there may be multiple factors causing your chronic coughing symptoms. To make an accurate diagnosis, your doctor will start with a physical evaluation and full medical history. Your doctor may also perform lung function tests to see how well your lungs are working.

Other tests your doctor may perform include scoping studies. During a scoping study, your doctor will use a camera on a long tube to look down your esophagus or into your upper airway, lungs or sinuses. A scoping study can show signs of infection or blockage that could be a contributing factor to chronic coughing.

Your doctor may also suggest imaging tests such as an X-ray or MRI to help identify the cause of your chronic cough or to rule out possible causes.

Chronic cough treatment

The treatment to help get rid of your chronic cough will depend on the cause for your coughing. For example, doctors may recommend that those who experience chronic coughing as a side effect of their blood pressure medication try a different medication. If smoking is suspected to be the cause of a chronic cough, your doctor will encourage you to quit smoking.

Your doctor may recommend different treatments and medications to eliminate your chronic cough:

  • Acid reflux medications
  • Antibiotics
  • Antihistamines
  • Asthma medications
  • Decongestants
  • Increased fluid intake (to thin mucus)

Your doctor may also suggest a cough suppressant to help control persistent coughing. However, it’s important to understand that a cough suppressant will only address the symptom of the cough and won’t improve the underlying cause. Always check with your doctor before beginning any course of medication, including over-the-counter medication.

If environmental triggers are a possible cause for your chronic coughing, your doctor may recommend making some lifestyle changes. For example, for a cough that’s triggered by dry air, your doctor could suggest using a humidifier.

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