Acute coughs are often caused by infections, such as colds or the flu. Other causes may be:
- Exposure to an irritant or allergen
- Inhaling a foreign object
- Acute bronchitis
A subacute cough often follows a respiratory infection or irritation.
A chronic cough has many causes. Common ones are:
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which includes chronic bronchitis or emphysema
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
Postnasal drip, which may be due to:
- Inhaling irritants often
- Sinus inflammation
- Certain medicines, such as angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors
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The doctor will ask about your symptoms and health history. A physical exam will be done.
An acute cough is usually diagnosed by symptoms that occur with it.
If coughing is severe or long lasting, tests may be done to look for the cause. Tests may be:
- Blood tests
- Skin tests
- Analysis of a sputum sample
Images may be taken to look at the lungs and other structures. They may include:
- Chest x-ray
- CT scan
Other tests may include:
- Bronchoscopy—a lighted tube put in the lungs to view the area and/or take a tissue sample
- Pulmonary function tests—to check how well the lungs work
The goal is to treat the underlying cause of a cough. It is also to ease symptoms and prevent further problems. Coughs due to infections often go away on their own. Other coughs may need treatment. Some people may be referred to a specialist.
Depending on the cause of the cough, some options may be:
- Lifestyle changes, such as:
- Staying away from irritants such as smoke, dust, or fumes
- Strategies to quit smoking
- Using a cool mist humidifier—to loosen mucus
- Over-the-counter or prescription medicines, such as:
- Cough and cold medicines
- Corticosteroids by mouth, inhalers, or nasal sprays—to reduce inflammation
- Bronchodilators—to open the airways
- Acid reducers—for people with acid reflux
This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.
Edits to original content made by Denver Health.
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American Lung Association http://www.lung.org
Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians https://www.familydoctor.org
Chronic cough in adults—approach to the patient. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/approach-to/chronic-cough-in-adults-approach-to-the-patient. Accessed March 29, 2021.
Cough. Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at: https://familydoctor.org/symptom/cough. Accessed March 29, 2021.
Mathur A, Liu-Shiu-Cheong PSK, et al. The management of chronic cough. QJM. 2019;112(9):651-656.