What does your cough say about your illness?

February 6, 2018  20:24

A persistent cough can disrupt your daily activities and drive you to distraction. But, whether it stays around for a few days or turns into a nagging annoyance that lingers for weeks, the type of cough you have can often give you a clue about what’s ailing you.

Pulmonologist Rachel Taliercio from Cleveland Clinic says upper respiratory infections cause a significant percentage of acute cough. Knowing more about your cough (whether dry or wet, acute or chronic) can help determine the best treatment options, especially if the cough does not resolve.

Acute coughs from temporary illness

An acute cough most likely appears when you have a cold, flu or other temporary infection. It may last up to eight weeks, and medication usually helps quiet this type of cough.

If you’re not getting relief from over-the-counter medication or the condition persists beyond a week or two, consult your doctor. He or she will determine whether a treatable infection is causing your cough.

Whooping cough or pneumonia also may prompt an acute cough, Dr. Taliercio says. She describes how these coughs may sound and how to treat them.

Whooping cough (pertussis). A vaccine can prevent this virus, which once was on the decline. If you get pertussis, the cough can become so intense, you may vomit.

  • How does it sound? Severe, hacking cough, including a “whooping” sound with inhalation
  • How to treat it: Antibiotics

Pneumonia. This condition inflames the lungs and can make them fill with fluid. Vaccines can prevent some pneumonia infections.

  • How does it sound? Initially a dry cough that later turns wet with yellow, green or red-tinged mucus
  • How to treat it: Antibiotics for bacterial infections; rest and cough medication for viral infections

Chronic coughs from underlying conditions

Chronic cough is defined as a cough that lasts eight weeks or more, and it can have several different causes. Treatment options for chronic cough caused by underlying conditions varies, depending on the illness.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). This condition causes lung inflammation that constricts your airways, making breathing difficult. It’s usually caused by long-term exposure to lung irritants, such as cigarette smoke.

  • How does it sound? A chronic, hacking cough that creates a significant amount of mucus, particularly in the morning
  • How to treat it: Bronchodilators (drugs that help open airways), inhaled steroids, oxygen therapy, quitting smoking

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). GERD occurs when stomach acid irritates your esophagus. It’s the second most common cause of chronic cough, accounting for 40 percent of cases.

  • How does it sound? Dry, spasmodic cough; occurs most often when you lie down
  • How to treat it: Over-the-counter medications to reduce acid production

AsthmaAsthma causes airway inflammation, swelling and increased mucus production that makes breathing more difficult.

  • How does it sound? Dry cough that ends with a rattle or wheeze; often worsens at night, in cold air or with exercise
  • How to treat it: Inhaled bronchodilators (such as albuterol) or corticosteroids (such as fluticasone) for quick relief

Medication-related cough. This type of cough may appear a few weeks after you start taking a new medication. For example, 20 percent of patients taking ACE inhibitors for high blood pressure experience a cough.

  • How does it sound? Dry cough
  • How to treat it: Consult your doctor about switching medications.

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