Definition


A cough is your body's way of responding when something irritates your throat or airways. An irritant stimulates nerves that send a message to your brain. The brain then tells muscles in your chest and abdomen to push air out of your lungs to force out the irritant.

An occasional cough is normal and healthy. A cough that persists for several weeks or one that brings up discolored or bloody mucus may indicate a condition that needs medical attention.

At times, coughing can be very forceful. Prolonged, vigorous coughing can irritate the lungs and cause even more coughing. It is also exhausting and can cause sleeplessness, dizziness or fainting, headaches, urinary incontinence, vomiting, and even broken ribs.


Causes

While an occasional cough is normal, a cough that persists may be a sign of a medical problem.

A cough is considered "acute" if it lasts less than three weeks. It is considered "chronic" if it lasts longer than eight weeks (four weeks in children).

Some causes of coughs include:


Common causes — acute

  1. Common cold
  2. Influenza (flu)
  3. Inhaling an irritant (such as smoke, dust, chemicals or a foreign body) 
  4. Pneumonia
  5. Whooping cough

Common causes — chronic

  1. Allergies
  2. Asthma (most common in children)
  3. Bronchitis
  4. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  5. Postnasal drip

Others

  1. Acute sinusitis (nasal and sinus infection)
  2. Bronchiectasis (a chronic lung condition in which abnormal widening of bronchial tubes inhibits mucus clearing)
  3. Bronchiolitis (especially in young children)
  4. Choking: First aid (especially in children)
  5. Chronic sinusitis
  6. COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) exacerbation — worsening of symptoms 
  7. Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)
  8. Croup (especially in young children)
  9. Cystic fibrosis
  10. Emphysema
  11. Heart failure
  12. Laryngitis
  13. Lung cancer
  14. Medications called angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors
  15. Neuromuscular diseases that weaken the coordination of upper airway and swallowing muscles
  16. Pulmonary embolism (blood clot in an artery in the lung)
  17. Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) — especially in young children
  18. Sarcoidosis (collections of inflammatory cells in the body)
  19. Tuberculosis


When to see a doctor

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Call your doctor if your cough (or your child's cough) doesn't go away after a few weeks or if it also involves any one of these:

  • Coughing up thick, greenish-yellow phlegm
  • Wheezing
  • Experiencing a fever
  • Experiencing shortness of breath
  • Experiencing fainting
  • Experiencing ankle swelling or weight loss

Seek emergency care if you or your child is:

  • Choking or vomiting
  • Having difficulty breathing or swallowing
  • Coughing up bloody or pink-tinged phlegm
  • Experiencing chest pain

Self-care measures

Cough medicines usually are used only when cough is an acute condition, causes a lot of discomfort, interferes with sleep and is not associated with any of the potentially worrisome symptoms indicated above. If you use cough medicine, be sure to follow the dosing instructions.

Over-the-counter cough and cold medicines are intended to treat the symptoms of coughs and colds, not the underlying disease. Research suggests that these medicines haven't been proved to work any better than inactive medicine (placebo). More important, these medications have potentially serious side effects, including fatal overdoses in children younger than 2 years old.

Don't use over-the-counter medicines, except for fever reducers and pain relievers, to treat coughs and colds in children younger than 6 years old. Also, consider avoiding use of these medicines for children younger than 12 years old.

To ease your cough, try these tips:

  • Suck cough drops or hard candies. They may ease a dry cough and soothe an irritated throat. Don't give them to a child under age 6, however, because of the risk of choking.
  • Consider taking honey. A teaspoon of honey may help loosen a cough. Don't give honey to children younger than 1 year old because honey can contain bacteria harmful to infants.
  • Moisturize the air. Use a cool mist humidifier or take a steamy shower.
  • Drink fluids. Liquid helps thin the mucus in your throat. Warm liquids, such as broth tea or lemon juice, can soothe your throat.
  • Avoid tobacco smoke. Smoking or breathing secondhand smoke can make your cough worse.


Acute sinusitis

Allergies

Aortic aneurysm

Asbestosis

Ascariasis

Asthma attack

Atelectasis

Barrett's esophagus

Bile reflux

Bird flu (avian influenza)

Bronchitis

Cancer

Castleman disease

Chronic sinusitis

Churg-Strauss syndrome

Common cold

Common cold in babies

COPD

Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)

Croup

Dilated cardiomyopathy

Dust mite allergy

Dysphagia

Ebola virus and Marburg virus

Egg allergy

Ehrlichiosis and anaplasmosis

Enlarged heart

Esophageal cancer

Esophagitis

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)

Goiter

Granulomatosis with polyangiitis

Group B strep disease

H1N1 flu (swine flu)

Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome

Heart disease

Heart failure

Heart murmurs

Histoplasmosis

HIV/AIDS

Hodgkin's lymphoma (Hodgkin's disease)

Influenza (flu)

Interstitial lung disease

Laryngitis

Legionnaires' disease

Lung cancer

Measles

Mesothelioma

Milk allergy

Mitral valve regurgitation

Mitral valve stenosis

Nonallergic rhinitis

Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma

Pectus excavatum

Pericardial effusion

Pericarditis

Pet allergy

Pleurisy

Pneumonia

Pneumonitis

Pulmonary edema

Pulmonary embolism

Pulmonary fibrosis

Q fever

Recurrent breast cancer

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)

Roseola

Sarcoidosis

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)

Sinus headaches

Sjogren's syndrome

Spinal cord injury

Stevens-Johnson syndrome

Thoracic aortic aneurysm

Throat cancer

Tuberculosis

Tuberous sclerosis

Tularemia

Valley fever

Vascular rings

Whipple's disease

Whooping cough