John P. Cunha, DO, is a U.S. board-certified Emergency Medicine Physician. Dr. Cunha's educational background includes a BS in Biology from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and a DO from the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences in Kansas City, MO. He completed residency training in Emergency Medicine at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark, New Jersey.
A cough is an action the body takes to get rid of substances that are irritating to
the air passages, which carry the air a person breathes in from the nose and mouth to the lungs. A cough occurs when cells along the air passages get irritated and trigger a chain of events. The result
is air in the lungs is forced out under high pressure. A person can choose to cough (a voluntary process), or
the body may cough on its own (an involuntary process).
Causes of Coughs
There are many causes for cough. Doctors classify coughs into two categories, acute and chronic.
An an acute cough is one that been present for less than three weeks. Chronic coughs are those present for more than
Acute coughs can be divided into infectious (caused by an infection) and noninfectious causes.
The easiest way to simplify the causes of chronic cough is to divide them into their locations with respect to the lungs. The categories are environmental irritants, conditions within the lungs, conditions along the passages that transmit air from the lungs to the environment, conditions within the chest cavity but outside of the lungs, and digestive causes.
Any environmental substance that irritates the air passages or the lungs is capable of producing a chronic cough with continued exposure.
Cigarette smoke is the most common cause of chronic cough. Other cough-producing irritants include dusts, pollens, pet dander, particulate matter, industrial chemicals and pollution, cigar and pipe smoke, and low environmental humidity.
Within the lungs both common and uncommon conditions cause chronic cough. Common causes include asthma, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis. Less common causes of lung-induced chronic cough include cancer, sarcoidosis, diseases of the lung tissue, and
congestive heart failure with chronic fluid build-up in the lungs.
The passages that connect the lungs to the external environment are known as the upper respiratory tract. Chronic sinus infections, chronic postnasal drip, diseases of the external ear,
infections of the throat, and use of ACE inhibitor
medications for high blood pressure have all been implicated in chronic cough.
In addition to disease processes within the lung and air passages, diseases elsewhere within the chest cavity may also be responsible for chronic cough. Conditions within the chest known to cause chronic cough include cancer, unusual growth of a
lymph node, and an abnormal enlargement of the aorta, the main blood vessel leaving the heart.
An often-overlooked cause of the chronic cough is
gastroesophageal reflux (GERD). GERD occurs when acid from the stomach travels up the esophagus. This abnormal condition can cause irritation of the esophagus and larynx resulting in the reflex production of a cough.
Coughing is your body's way of getting foreign substances and mucus out of your lungs and upper airway passages. Coughs are often useful, and you should not try to eliminate them. Sometimes, though, coughs are severe enough to make breathing difficult, cause vomiting, or prevent rest. Home treatment can help you feel more comfortable when you have a cough.
Drink more fluids. Water helps loosen mucus and soothe an irritated throat. Dry, hacking coughs respond to honey in hot water, tea, or lemon juice. Do not give honey to children younger than 1 year of age.
Elevate your head with extra pillows at night to ease a dry cough.
Try a cough drop to soothe an irritated throat. Expensive medicine-flavored cough drops are not any better than inexpensive candy-flavored ones or hard candy. Most cough drops have no effect on the cough-producing mechanism.
Avoid exposure to inhaled irritants, such as smoke, dust, or other pollutants, or wear a face mask that is appropriate for the exposure. There are many kinds of face masks. Check with your doctor or pharmacist to find out which types will give you the most benefit.