Why do we cough?
Coughing is a symptom, not a disease. It is our body’s way of protecting our airways and is usually triggered when the wind pipe is irritated or inflamed. This helps to remove any mucus blocking the windpipe, improve air flow, and make it easier for us to inhale fresh air.
But what does it mean when it lasts for longer than a couple of days? Here are 8 common conditions that could be the cause of your cough.
1. Upper respiratory tract infection
An upper respiratory tract infection (URTI) is the most common cause for coughing. URTIs are normally viral infections, but occasionally, bacteria are to blame. Unfortunately, a bacterial infection will often last for more than a week.
Symptoms of a viral URTI usually begin 2 – 3 days after initial infection, and can last for 6 – 7 days in young children and 3 – 14 days in adults.
Other symptoms of a URTI include:
- Runny nose or sneezing
- Feeling rundown
For most URTIs, you’ll just need to take over-the-counter medications to ease your symptoms. However, if symptoms persist for more than 1 week, you’ll need to visit your doctor for a clinical assessment before starting a course of antibiotics.
The flu is a common cause of a URTI. Visit your doctor for more information about the yearly flu vaccination if you’re concerned.
2. Post-nasal drip
When your body produces excessive mucus, it can cause a post-nasal drip. This is where mucus trickles down the back of your throat, and triggers nerve endings and receptors that cause you to cough. It is a common side effect of allergies and viral infections.
This type of cough can be either productive (wet) or unproductive (dry), and is usually worse at night. You may also experience an itchy throat, sneezing, and itchy and watery eyes, as well as eczema if your drip is caused by allergies.
Your doctor may prescribe a course of antihistamines to tackle the problem. Over-the-counter nasal sprays can also help to ease congestion. If allergies are the issue, speak to your doctor about referring you to an immunologist for further consultations and treatment.
Asthma is a chronic condition that affects the airways, inflaming the windpipe and thus restricting the airflow to the lungs. Several different factors can trigger an asthma attack, but common triggers include pollen, pet hair, smoke, fumes and certain foods. An asthmatic cough is often accompanied by wheezing and chest tightness. It may also get worse at night or after exercise.
Thankfully, asthma is a manageable condition that can be treated with both inhalers and steroid medications. However, if an attack goes untreated, it can be life threatening. If you suspect an asthma attack, seek medical help immediately.
Did you know that heartburn is the most common cause of a chronic cough? Its technical name gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and it usually occurs when acid from the stomach leaks back up into the food pipe. Lying down at night can make this type of cough worse.
Your doctor can use an endoscopy (camera down the throat) to check out the underlying causes of your heartburn. Certain medications may help reduce the amount of acid in your stomach, which will help to relieve some of the symptoms. If your cough persists, you may need to visit a gastroenterologist to find a treatment that works for you.
5. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
Smoking is the main cause of COPD. It’s a common lung disease that obstructs airflow and makes it hard to breathe. It comes in 2 main forms – chronic bronchitis and emphysema – although many people with the condition have a combination of both.
One of the main symptoms is a hacking cough that brings up a lot of mucus, particularly in the morning. Other symptoms include shortness of breath, wheezing and tiredness.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for COPD. Your doctor will be able to help you manage your condition with inhalers. It’s important that you quit smoking to slow down the progression of lung damage.
6. Drug-induced coughing
If you are taking medication for high blood pressure, there’s a chance it could be causing your cough. One group of very effective medicines, known as ACE inhibitors, are great for treating high blood pressure, but one known side effect is a dry cough. This affects around 20% of patients.
A simple switch to a different type of medication can help to relieve this type of cough. Speak to your doctor if you’re at all concerned.
Pneumonia is a common chest infection with symptoms that include a fever with chills and shivering, shortness of breath, and of course, a cough.
You can catch pneumonia at work or school (community-acquired), or occasionally, in the hospital (hospital-acquired), and the infection can be either viral or bacterial. Anyone can get pneumonia, but it’s particularly dangerous in young children and the elderly.
You will need to take antibiotics to treat the condition. Depending on its severity, you may need to be admitted to hospital for this treatment.
Luckily, there is a pneumonia vaccine to help lower your chances of infection. For more information, speak to your doctor.
8. Whooping cough
Whooping cough can affect people of all ages, from babies and toddlers to teens and adults. It takes approximately 5 – 10 days for symptoms to develop after infection.
Early symptoms include a runny nose, mild cough, apnoea (pauses in breathing in babies) and a mild fever. However, as the disease progresses, symptoms will likely get increasingly worse, including seizures, rapid coughing followed by a high-pitched “whoop” sound, vomiting during or after coughing fits, and extreme tiredness.
Antibiotics can help to clear the infection, but early treatment is essential to save lives. If you’ve recently had a baby, speak to your doctor about the whooping cough vaccination.
Article contributed by Dr Vikneswaran V Paranjothy, general practitioner at Parkway Shenton, Woodlands