A cough is a common reflex action that clears the throat of mucus or foreign irritants. Coughing to clear the throat is typically an infrequent action, although a number of conditions can cause more frequent bouts of coughing. In general;
- A cough that lasts for less than three weeks is an acute cough.
- A cough that lasts between 3 and 8 weeks, improving by the end of that period, is a sub-acute cough.
- A persistent cough that lasts more than eight weeks is a chronic cough.
Most cough episodes will clear up, or at least significantly improve, within two weeks. If you cough up blood or have a “barking” cough, talk to your doctor. Any cough that hasn’t improved after a few weeks may be serious, and you should see a doctor.
What causes a cough?
A cough can be caused by several conditions, both temporary and permanent.
Clearing the throat
A cough is a standard way of clearing the throat. When your airways become clogged with mucus or foreign particles such as smoke or dust, a cough is a reflex reaction that attempts to clear the particles and make breathing easier.
Usually, this type of coughing is relatively infrequent, but coughing will increase with exposure to irritants such as smoke.
Viruses and bacteria
The most common cause of a cough is a respiratory tract infection, such as a cold or flu. Respiratory tract infections are usually caused by a virus and may last from a few days to a week. Infections caused by the flu may take a little longer to clear up and may sometimes require antibiotics.
Smoking is another common cause of coughing. A cough caused by smoking is almost always a chronic cough with a distinctive sound. It’s often known as “smoker’s cough.”
A common cause of coughing in young children is asthma. Typically, asthmatic coughing involves wheezing, making it easy to identify. Asthma exacerbations should receive treatment using an inhaler. It’s possible for children to grow out of asthma as they get older.
Some medications will cause coughing, although this is generally a rare side effect. Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors, commonly used to treat high blood pressure and heart conditions, can cause coughing. The coughing stops when the medication is discontinued.
Other conditions that may cause a cough include:
- damage to the vocal cords
- postnasal drip
- bacterial infections such as pneumonia, whooping cough, and croup
- serious conditions such as pulmonary embolism and heart failure
- Another common condition that can cause a chronic cough is gastroesophageal reflux disease(GERD). In this condition, stomach contents flow back into the esophagus. This backflow stimulates a reflex in the trachea, causing the person to cough.
Self-care tips for coughing
- Increasing humidity in the air helps relieve a cough. A
vapourizerand a steamy shower are two ways to increase the humidity.
- Drink extra fluids (e.g warm water) to help thin secretions and make them easier to cough up.
- When a cold and a stuffy, runny nose accompany the cough, it is often caused by
mucousdripping down the back of the throat. A decongestant that opens the nasal passages will relieve this postnasal drip,and is the best treatment for that type of cough.
- Decongestants such as phenylephrine, pseudoephedrine or combinations of these two decongestants are available as over-the-counter cold medications. Don’t give decongestants to a child under six years of age unless prescribed by the doctor. It is important to talk to your physician before using any cough medications for children under two.
- If you have high blood pressure (hypertension), consult the doctor before taking decongestants.
- Coughs due to chronic postnasal drip are probably caused by either sinus infection or allergy. If an allergy is a cause, it is typically treated by avoiding the trigger (allergen) that is causing the allergy. In addition, anti-histamines and a steroid nasal spray are sometimes used to suppress the allergic inflammation.
- Dry, tickling coughs can be relieved by sucking on cough lozenges or hard candy. (However, never give a lozenge or hard candy to a child under 3 years old because it is a choking hazard).
- Avoid smoking and coming in direct contact with people experiencing cold or flu symptoms.
- Wash hands frequently during episodes of upper-respiratory illnesses.
- An acute infection such as pneumonia may require antibiotics, an asthma-induced cough may be treated with the use of bronchodilators, or an antihistamine may be administered in the case of an allergy.
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