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A cough is our body’s natural way of removing mucous or something foreign from our upper airways and lungs.

A woman coughing into a tissue

The causes of a cough may vary. Coughing is a symptom and getting to the source of the cough is usually established in conjunction with other symptoms that are present. A cough may indicate a cold, a flu infection, an allergy, a bacterial infection like whooping cough, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or may occur as a result of certain medications or from smoking. It can also be due to anxiety.

Different kinds of coughs

A cough may be chronic (lasting more than eight weeks in adults and four weeks in children) or acute (lasting less than three weeks) depending on the underlying condition.

A cough can be classified as either productive or non-productive. A productive cough produces phlegm or mucous that comes up from the lungs or is drained back down the throat from the nasal passages. A productive cough may be a symptom of an infection, such as a cold, pneumonia, bronchitis, sinusitis or tuberculosis. It could indicate chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

Tobacco use can cause a cough, which may be a sign of lung damage or in severe cases, lung cancer.

A dry or non-productive cough can be caused by irritants in the air, allergies, asthma, certain medications, as well as from a blockage in the airway caused by, for example, choking on food.

Seek medical attention if your cough is accompanied by the following:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Coughing up blood
  • A new rash
  • A new or high fever
  • Severe chest pain

How is it diagnosed?

 To establish the underlying reason for your cough, your doctor will perform a physical exam, look at your medical history and review your other symptoms.

How long you’ve been coughing, whether there is mucous (and what colour it is), how much you’ve been coughing, whether it gets worse at night, whether you suffer from GERD, asthma, allergies, or whether you smoke are among the questions your doctor is likely to ask you.

Depending on the outcome of your physical examination, your doctor may recommend further tests, including an X-ray of the chest or sinuses, testing of a mucous sample, or a lung function test to establish the cause of the cough or rule out possible causes.

What are your treatment options?

Treatment options depend on the underlying condition causing the cough. For more info on specific treatments for conditions, click on the links below:

Can it be prevented?

There are a number of ways to reduce your risk of cough, especially if it is associated with known causes, such as viral infections, smoking or allergies. These include:

  • Wash your hands often, particularly in cold and flu season
  • Avoid people who have colds or flu if possible
  • Get a flu vaccine
  • Stop smoking
  • Avoid second-hand smoke

Get your flu vaccination at Clicks Clinics

To make an appointment for a flu vaccination at a Clicks Clinic, call 0860 254 257 or visit Clicks Clinics online.

IMAGE CREDIT: 123rf.com

The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in December 2015