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People cough all the time for various reasons. Sometimes, you just need to clear your throat, but frequent coughing can indicate other problems. In most cases, frequent coughing clears up or improves within two to three weeks.

Persistent coughs that last longer than eight weeks are considered chronic, and they may indicate more serious health problems.

Inhaling an Irritant

Inhaling irritants can cause coughing because they affect the mouth, nose, and throat.

Irritants are especially damaging for people with chronic lung disease, but inhaling things like second-hand smoke, smog, bleach, ammonia, or even dry air can cause anyone to cough. Some irritants cause more extensive, lasting damage, leading to inflammation and scarring in the lungs.

woman wearing mask beside bus depot coughing

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Allergies

If you have an allergy-related cough, it may only show up during certain seasons or in specific environments where the allergen is present. If your allergies are seasonal, the cough may last weeks, but if it's environmental, the cough should resolve when you are away from the allergen.

Hay fever, or nasal congestion caused by an allergy, may also cause a cough if it results in post-nasal drip and irritates the throat.

man coughing allergies outdoors

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Cold and Flu

Colds and flu can both cause a cough, but they are a little different in character. Colds tend to develop slowly, while the flu comes on fast. You are more likely to have a dry, persistent cough with the flu, while a cold is more likely to result in a mild, hacking cough.

woman sick at home in a blanket coughing Ill woman coughing

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Asthma

Asthma is a chronic disease that affects the airways, causing them to swell and become reactive. They tighten and squeeze, preventing air from passing into the lungs easily. People with asthma may have a cough, depending on what their triggers are.

Irritants, like fragrances, smoke, pollen, and even cold air, can cause coughing. Some people have cough-variant asthma, where a chronic cough is the only symptom.

child with asthma coughing

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GERD

Gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD is when stomach acid repeatedly flows up into the esophagus, irritating its lining. An ongoing cough is a common symptom of GERD, especially in those who experience reflux at night.

People can also cough from an isolated incident of reflux, but this type usually resolves very quickly.

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Medication

Many medications can cause coughing. ACE inhibitors are drugs commonly prescribed to treat high blood pressure and heart failure and are a well-known medicinal cause of coughing. Other types of blood pressure medication, specifically angiotensin II receptor blockers (ARBs) and calcium channel blockers, also cause cough.

Drugs in other classes can result in this symptom, too, including fentanyl, some anti-epileptic drugs (phenytoin and topiramate), and latanoprost eye drops for glaucoma treatment.

woman coughing while waiting for pharmacy medicine

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Sinusitis

A cough may also be a sign of sinusitis, swelling in the lining of the sinuses, the four connected cavities behind the eyes and nose. Usually, the sinuses are filled with air and secrete thin mucus that drains out of the nose.

When the sinuses get blocked from a cold or seasonal allergies, the fluid gets trapped, leading to infection. Sinusitis can lead to post-nasal drip, which can cause a cough.

man sick on couch with sinusitis

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Lung Diseases

Most diseases that affect the lungs can cause cough. COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is a chronic lung disease that gets worse over time. It includes both emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Emphysema is when the thin walls between the air sacs in the lungs trap air, making it harder to exhale. Chronic bronchitis is repeated and constant irritation of the airway lining.

COPD typically produces a very wet cough with a lot of mucus. Another lung disease that can cause coughing is cystic fibrosis (CF), an inherited disease that affects the digestive, reproductive, and respiratory systems. People with CF are prone to lung infections, which often lead to a chronic cough.

older man with respiratory problem reaching for inhaler

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Lung Infections

Lung infections directly affect the lungs, so it is no surprise they can cause a cough. Pneumonia is one of the most common and can be severe, especially in infants, young children, and senior citizens. When someone has pneumonia, the air sacs in the lungs fill with fluid, leading to fever, chills, breathing difficulties, and a wet cough.

A common lung infection, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), can mimic a cold, but it can also cause a severe infection in infants and people with weakened immune systems. Other lung infections that can cause cough are tuberculosis, COVID-19, and SARS.

older woman talking to doctor about cough and breathing issue

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Lung Cancer

There are multiple types of lung cancer. Non-small cell lung cancer is more common and spreads slowly. It is classified as one of three types depending on where it developed.

  • Adenocarcinoma is the most common and starts near the periphery of the lungs.
  • Large-cell lung cancer also begins in the periphery of the lungs, but it grows rapidly and is usually advanced when diagnosed.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma starts in one of the larger breathing passages in the center of the chest.

The second main type is small-cell lung cancer, which is less common but spreads quickly and grows rapidly. People do not always show signs of lung cancer until it is pretty advanced, but coughing that does not improve is common when symptoms begin to appear. Someone with lung cancer may also experience pain that gets worse when coughing.

doctor showing patient scans of cancer in lungs

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This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.