Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a term used to describe a group of conditions that…
What is a cough?
Coughing is your body's way of getting rid of any foreign material or mucus in your lungs. Coughing can be a response to breathing in dust or fumes that irritate the nerve endings in the airways. It can also be a symptom of a medical problem, such as a lung infection caused by bacteria or viruses, or a long-term lung disease such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Common causes of cough
Coughing is sometimes a natural reaction to breathing in particles and gases that can irritate the airways in the lungs. Common irritants include allergens, smoke and air pollution.
Colds and flu
Colds and flu are common conditions that can cause coughing. They are a result of viral infections that affect the upper respiratory tract. As well as coughing, colds and flu can cause a sore throat and a stuffy or runny nose. The flu can also cause a fever and usually has worse symptoms than a cold.
Bronchitis is a type of chest infection that affects the lungs. It occurs when the airways in the lungs become inflamed by presence of viruses, bacteria, smoke or air pollution. The lung inflammation causes the production of mucus, which results in a narrowing of the lung airways and coughing.
Pneumonia is a lung infection that is usually caused by bacteria or viruses. It can cause a bad cough, a fever and difficulty breathing. Pneumonia is most likely to develop after having a cold or flu. It can affect people of any age, but is more common in young children, the elderly and other people with weak immune systems.
Bronchiolitis is a type of chest infection that commonly affects infants under 12 months of age. It is typically caused by viruses. At first, the symptoms of bronchiolitis may appear similar to a common cold, including a runny nose, fever and coughing. As it progresses, bronchiolitis may cause wheezing and rapid breathing.
Pertussis, which is also known as whooping cough, is a very contagious disease that commonly affects children under two years of age. It can also occur in older children and adults. It causes inflammation in the lungs, which leads to a distinctive 'whooping' cough. The coughing usually comes in fits of repeated fast coughs, which can last for a minute or two. The fits of coughing can be violent and leave the person gasping for air.
Croup is a common childhood condition characterised by a barking-sounding cough and noisy breathing. It occurs when an infection with a virus causes inflammation and swelling of the voice box and windpipe, making it harder to breathe. The condition most commonly affects children under five years of age. This is because up until this age, their small, soft windpipes are more likely to be affected by swelling.
Asthma is a common disease that affects the lungs. It occurs when the airways inside the lungs are very sensitive to certain particles that enter the lungs during normal breathing and can also be brought on by exercise. As well as coughing, the main symptoms of asthma include episodes of wheezing, feeling out of breath and tightness in the chest.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a condition that affects the lungs and is commonly caused by smoking. The main symptoms of COPD include feeling out of breath after exertion or, in severe cases, even when resting, but it can also cause coughing, mucus production, wheezing and tightness in the chest.
Heartburn, or gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD), is a type of indigestion that occurs when the stomach contents reflux up into the oesophagus. The main symptom of heartburn is a burning sensation in the lower chest and throat after eating. It can also cause coughing, especially at night or when lying down.
Methods for diagnosis
To determine the cause of your cough, a doctor will conduct a physical examination and ask you about your symptoms. During a physical examination they may use a stethoscope to listen for unusual sounds from your lungs during deep breathing.
If your doctor suspects that your cough is caused by a lung infection, they may ask you for a sample of mucus, phlegm or blood, which can then be tested for presence of bacteria or a virus. If you have a long-term cough, they may conduct some lung function tests that may help to diagnose a long-term lung condition such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Medication for coughs
Coughs are usually treated by identifying and treating the underlying cause of the cough. Many different medications are also available to reduce the severity of the cough, or break down the mucus and phlegm that is then easier to dislodge from the lungs. The most suitable cough medication will depend on whether it is a dry, tickly cough or a cough that produces mucus or phlegm, so it is important to speak to your doctor or pharmacist about which type of cough medication is best for you.
Some common types of cough medication include:
- Demulcents, which form a protective layer over the throat to help reduce coughing;
- Mucolytics, which thin the mucus;
- Expectorants, which loosen mucus from the airways, and;
- Suppressants, which reduce the urge to cough.
Many over-the-counter cough medications are generally not recommended for children under six years of age without a doctor's advice.
When to seek medical attention
Some of the conditions that cause coughing can have complications and result in a serious illness, particularly for elderly people, children and people with weak immune systems. If coughing leads to difficulty in breathing or there are traces of blood in the phlegm, it is best to seek medical attention as soon as possible.