Chronic and Acute Coughs

Acute and Chronic Cough Definition

Man coughing with his hand over his mouth.
Acute coughs usually last around two weeks. Chronic coughs are persistent.

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).

Acute cough only lasts a short time, about two weeks. Chronic cough is a persistent cough that won't go away.

What Are Acute and Chronic (Persistent) Coughs?

Acute coughs can be divided into infectious (caused by an infection) and noninfectious causes.

Infectious causes of acute cough include:

Noninfectious causes of cough include:

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.

What Are Chronic (Persistent) Cough Irritants?

The signs and symptoms of a chronic or persistent cough can be hard for doctors to evaluate because many causes of this type of cough have overlapping signs and symptoms.

  1. If a cough is related to environmental irritants, it will worsen when exposed to the offending agent. If a person has an environmental allergy, the cough may improve when using allergy medications. If a person has a smoker's cough, it may improve if they stop smoking and worsen with increased smoking.
  2. If a person has a chronic lung disease such as asthma or COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) such as, emphysema, or chronic bronchitis, they may have a persistent cough or a cough that worsens with certain locations or activities. An individual may or may not have sputum with a cough, and often have improvement with the use of inhaled or oral steroids, or other inhaled medications.
  3. If a cough is caused by chronic sinus infections, chronic runny nose, or chronic postnasal drip, the person will often have the signs and symptoms associated with these conditions. A person may also notice the cough worsens when the underlying condition worsens, and often the cough will improve when the underlying problem is treated.
  4. If a cough is associated with medications, such as angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors, the cough often begins after starting the medication in question, but can come on at any point during the use of the medication. Often, a dry cough improves when the medication is stopped.
  5. A cough associated with GERD often is associated with a sensation of heartburn. This type of cough worsens during the day or when lying flat on the back. Some sizable people with a cough caused by GERD have no symptoms of reflux, but most people will report improvement in their cough when GERD (gastroesophageal reflux) is treated properly.
  6. If a cough is a warning sign of an underlying cancer, the person may have a group of symptoms. If lung cancer or a cancer of the air passages is present, the person may cough up blood. Other signs and symptoms that may warn of a cancer include worsening fatigue, loss of appetite, unexplained loss of weight, or decreased ability to swallow solid or liquid foods.

What Causes Acute and Chronic Coughs?

Allergies and Asthma Can Make You Cough
Allergies can lead to itchy and watery eyes, postnasal drip, coughing, and other symptoms.

Common causes of acute cough include:

  1. Viruses such as the common cold and influenza (flu).
  2. Pneumonia.
  3. Bacterial infections.
  4. Whooping cough.
  5. Inhaled irritants (such as dust, smoke, and chemicals).

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of an Acute Cough?

Acute coughs are divided into infectious and noninfectious causes. Acute cough signs and symptoms that point to an infection include:

  1. Fever
  2. Chills
  3. Body aches
  4. Sore throat
  5. Nausea
  6. Vomiting
  7. Headache
  8. Sinus pressure
  9. Runny nose
  10. Night sweats
  11. Postnasal drip

Sputum, or phlegm, sometimes indicates an infection is present, but it is also seen in noninfectious causes. Yellow-green mucus also may indicate and infection.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of a Chronic (Persistent) Cough?

Signs and symptoms of a chronic or persistent cough point to noninfectious causes include;

  1. Coughs that occur when a person is exposed to certain chemicals or irritants in the environment.
  2. Coughs with wheezing.
  3. Coughs that routinely worsen when a person goes to certain locations or do certain activities.
  4. Coughs that improve with inhalers or allergy medications.

When Should You Call a Doctor for a Cough?

When to See Your Doctor
Call your doctor if you develop any of the following troubling symptoms: a deep, wet cough that produces lots of mucus and phlegm, chest tightness, shortness of breath, and more than 7 days of coughing.

In general, contact a doctor if you experience:

  • Cough is associated with a fever and sputum production
  • Cough fails to get better after other symptoms go away or lessen
  • Cough changes in character
  • Trial therapy shows no signs of reducing the cough
  • You begin coughing up blood
  • Cough interferes with the activities of daily living or sleep cycles
  • Call a doctor immediately if you have shortness of breath or difficulty breathing.

Most coughs do not require evaluation in the emergency department, and efforts should be made to discuss the situation with a doctor. But certain circumstances warrant emergency evaluation.

  • If you have a cough that is caused by a chronic condition, discuss what signs and symptoms warrant going to the emergency department with your doctor or specialist.
  • If you develop severe shortness of breath or chest pain with your cough, you could have any number of serious medical problems that require urgent intervention.
  • Elderly people or people with weakened immune systems who develop a cough and fever should be seen in the emergency department if they are unable to contact their doctor.
  • If you have lung disease and an acute worsening in your cough that does not respond to home therapy, you should go to the emergency department.

What Tests Diagnose the Causes of Coughs?

The diagnosis of a cough is based largely on the information the patient provides. Information necessary to help make an accurate diagnosis includes the duration of the cough, associated signs and symptoms, activities or locations that make the cough worse or better, relation between the cough and time of day, past medical history, and any home therapies already attempted.

  • In an acute cough the doctor may be able to make a diagnosis simply by interviewing the patient, and performing a physical examination. If the patient has an acute cough, chest X-rays typically do not add to the doctor's ability to make a diagnosis. Elderly people, people with weakened immune systems (i.e., from cancer, diabetes, or AIDS), and people with abnormal lung sounds on examination may benefit from an X-ray to check for pneumonia.
  • In a chronic cough, doctors will often rely on the interview and physical examination to aid them in determining what tests, if any, are appropriate in order to make a diagnosis. Many people will receive a chest X-ray to search for problems. Beyond this, other diagnostic tests may be ordered and based on the interview and examination. Some of these tests may be ordered by a primary care doctor or internist, and others will require referral to a specialist. The specialist selected will depend on the suspected source of the cough.

The patient should be active participant in his or own healthcare, and discuss with a doctor the purpose of any test ordered and what the expected results will mean.

What Is the Treatment for Cough Symptoms?

The treatment for an acute and chronic cough will depend largely on its severity and underlying cause.

Acute Cough

The treatment of an acute cough is directed primarily at decreasing the cough in addition to treating the underlying cause. Symptomatic cough relief can be provided by over-the-counter or prescription cough suppressants or cough syrups.

  • Severe coughs or coughs that interfere with sleep may need remedies that include narcotic medications. If these are prescribed, avoid alcohol, driving, and operating any heavy machinery while using the medicine.
  • If a bacterial infection is suspected the doctor will often prescribe antibiotics. People suspected of having a viral infection will not benefit from antibiotics, and will receive treatments directed at their symptoms only.
  • Elderly people, people with severe bacterial or viral infections, and people with weakened immune systems may require admission to the hospital to manage the underlying problem.

The treatment of a chronic cough will also be directed at treating the underlying condition. It is important to recognize that treatment may be difficult, may employ multiple approaches, and may not completely eliminate the cough.

  • If the patient has a cough caused by smoking, allergies, or environmental irritants, elimination of the offending substance will help. It may take several weeks for the doctor to assess the response to this approach because of the length of time required to repair damage to the lungs and air passages from the offending agent.
  • If the patient has a lung disease, ongoing therapy to treat the condition may be needed. Therapies used will depend largely on the type of disease. Multiple treatments are often used at the same time to help reduce symptoms. Careful adherence with the treatment will be critical to help slow the progression of any disease and to reduce symptoms.
  • In cases where home therapy fails and symptoms worsen, the patient may need hospitalization so that additional or more intensive therapies may be attempted. If the patient's cough is suspected to be caused by a medication, improvement usually occurs when the medication is stopped though the cough may take up to a few weeks to resolve. Another medication may be needed to replace the one the patient stopped taking. Talk to your doctor before stopping any prescribed medication.
  • If the patient is suspected of having a cough caused by GERD, treatment is needed to reduce the amount of acid reflux from the stomach. This is typically done with diet changes and medication. Successful treatment may take time, and multiple therapies may be needed.

What Home Remedies Help Relieve Cough Symptoms?

If the patient has an acute cough and have not been to a doctor, he or she may attempt to use over-the-counter (OTC) cold remedies or cough medicines to relieve the symptoms. If a common cold or flu is suspected, these may provide relief until the infection resolves on its own. Acute coughs that are caused by allergies are often relieved with allergy medication, and coughs due to environmental irritants will respond to elimination of the irritating agent.

Some home remedies that may relieve cough symptoms include:

  • Using a humidifier if the room is dry
  • Suck on cough drops or hard candy
  • Drink hot tea with honey and lemon
  • Stop smoking
  • Avoid allergens (such as dust, mold, pollens, and animals)

If you have acid reflux, talk to your doctor about lifestyle changes that can reduce symptoms.

Home care of the chronic cough with a known cause is directed at treating the underlying cause of the cough. This should be done in close consultation with a doctor or with a specialist. Although not every chronic cough can be eliminated, many people can find relief of their cough by following their doctor's recommendations closely.

How Long Should a Cough Last?

The prognosis for a cough varies depending on the underlying cause. After the cause has been addressed, most acute coughs will get better within 2-3 weeks. People who smoke and have a cough can expect a longer time period before the cough resolves. People with chronic cough often have more varied results, and people with chronic lung disease often have periods of resolution in addition to periods of worsening of the cough. Again, smoking will make a chronic cough last longer and should be avoided.

How Can You Prevent Coughs?

Prevention of a cough is based on avoiding the medical problems that cause cough. The most important aspect of prevention is to stop smoking and avoid secondhand smoke particularly for people with asthma, chronic lung disease, and environmental allergies.

  • For people with GERD, prevention is aimed at diet modification, sleeping with the head of the bed elevated, and taking all medications as prescribed.
  • For any person who is on medication for a chronic lung disease, the best prevention is strict adherence to the doctor's prescribed treatments.

Signs and Symptoms of Acute Bronchitis

Inflammation of the bronchial tubes narrows the inside opening of the bronchial tubes. Narrowing of the bronchial tubes result in increased resistance, this increase makes it more difficult for air to move to and from the lungs. This can cause symptoms like:

  • wheezing,
  • coughing,
  • chest pain, and
  • shortness of breath.
Chen, HH, MD, MBA, et a. Chronic Cough. Medscape. Updated: Dec 05, 2018.