Coughing is a way for the respiratory tract to try to get rid of something that is irritating. Most often, the cough is due to a cold and then it goes off by itself, although it can take several weeks. A cough may also be due to other diseases of the airways or lungs, or that the airways are irritated by, for example, smoke.
This text is about coughing in adults and children over 12 years. If your child is younger than you can read the text Cough in children.
Different types of cough
Coughing is common and can have many causes. Viral infections such as colds and trachea are the most common. Pneumonia, COPD and asthma are other diseases that can cause cough.
Depending on the cause, the cough may sound and be marked in different ways. For example, the cough can be dry or more mucous. You may also cough more at certain times, such as morning or night. Usually, you also cough more when you lie down or exert yourself physically. Most often you also have other problems besides the cough.
Cough clears the trachea
Cough is a protective reflex that starts when something irritates the mucous membranes of the airways. In the mucosa, there are nerves that send signals to the host center in the brain. From this center, signals are then sent to various muscles of the abdominal wall and the middle nerve and you begin to cough.
When the mucous membrane becomes irritated, more mucus is formed. By coughing up the mucus you get rid of what irritates the respiratory tract. Coughing is important for clearing the trachea and coughing should therefore not be unnecessarily dampened. Coughing is not a disease but a symptom.
The fact that the cough continues for a while after a cold has passed maybe because the mucous membranes are still sensitive.
What can I do for myself?
Coughing can be painful for a long time, especially if you cough at night and find it difficult to sleep. There are several things you can do yourself to relieve the cough in case of a cold.
- Make sure you drink a lot. Liquid makes the mucus less tough and easier to cough up. Hot drinks often seem to be leaking into the throat. If you cough at night, it may help to drink some water when the cough comes.
- Coughing at night can help raise the head end of the bed. The easiest way is to bed with extra pillows. Put the pillows under the mattress and they won’t slip away.
- If you are stuffy in the nose, the airways become extra dry and irritated because you have to breathe through your mouth. Then it may help to take a nasal spray before going to bed. Do not use a regular nasal spray for more than 10 days in a row.
- Avoid being in smoky environments as smoke often makes the cough worse. If you smoke yourself, there are many benefits to quitting smoking.
Non-prescription drugs for cough
There are no studies showing that non-prescription cough medicines have any clear effect. But some find that they help. At the pharmacy, there are non-prescription anti-cough and mucosal medicines to buy.
Drinking a lot usually is as effective as a mucus-releasing drug.
When should I seek care?
Contact a health care provider if you have any of the following symptoms:
- You have had a cough and fever for more than four days.
- You have had a cough for more than three weeks which does not seem to subside.
- You suspect you have whooping cough and spend time with children younger than one year.
- You suspect you have whooping cough and are pregnant after week 27.
If you have any of the following symptoms, please contact a health center or on-call reception immediately :
- You have a cough and you have difficulty breathing or you become increasingly breathless.
- You cough and have chest pain when you breathe deeply.
- You cough up blood.
If it is closed at the health center or on-call reception, seek care at an emergency room.
- You have got something in the trachea that you cannot cough up.
- You have a cough and at the same time get very difficult to breathe.
Diseases that can cause cough
It is usually respiratory tract infections that cause cough.
Cough is a common symptom of various viral infections. Diseases such as colds and trachea are usually caused by different types of viruses. Influenza is always caused by viruses. Viral infections are very common, especially in the fall and winter months.
A cold often causes cough such as coughing, sore throat, and tingling. You often feel hungry and sometimes have a fever. You usually feel better after four to five days. The cough may remain for two weeks until after the other disorders have disappeared, but rarely longer than four weeks.
An air tube catheter often begins as a cold. Within a few days, you will also get a cough that can be slimy or dry and irritating. Sometimes it hurts behind the sternum, especially when you cough. If there is a lot of mucus, or if the trachea reacts with cramps, you may find it harder to breathe and sometimes a beeping sound from the trachea can be heard. The infection heals on its own, but you can continue to cough for up to three to four weeks after the other symptoms have disappeared.
Influenza can cause more severe symptoms with high fever, cough, headache and body pain for several days. The flu usually lasts for two weeks, and you may be tired for several weeks afterward. For people with certain other diseases, the flu can be severe. People who are part of a risk group should vaccinate against influenza every year.
Pneumonia is usually caused by bacteria. Often it starts as a common cold, but the symptoms worsen instead of getting better after four to five days. Mucus is common and it usually hurts when you breathe. You almost always have a fever with pneumonia.
Whooping cough occurs in some parts of Europe, although the disease is not so common. In some years, the number of infected people is increasing. Adults and adolescents can get whooping cough even though they are vaccinated or have had whooping cough before. The symptoms are usually a protracted cough or mucus.
For children under one year, whooping cough can be serious. If you are close to children younger than one year, it is extra important that you seek care if you suspect that you have whooping cough. Then you can get antibiotics to reduce contagiousness.
Pulmonary disease COPD is largely caused by tobacco smoking and is uncommon in people who have not smoked or are younger than 40 years. One of the most common symptoms of COPD is cough. It is also common to feel short of breath, feeling tired and less able. The problems with COPD develop slowly over several years.
Asthma and allergies
Prolonged coughing or that you start coughing when you exert yourself may indicate asthma. The most common symptom of asthma is that it feels heavy to breathe. The trouble can also be triggered by coming into contact with something you are allergic to, such as pollen or fur animals.
It is unusual to be infected with tuberculosis in some parts of Europe, but in several other countries, tuberculosis is very common. Tuberculosis usually affects the lungs and mucosa is common. The mucus may be blood mixed. You can also lose weight, have a fever and sweat at night.
If you have sensitive trachea, different types of strong scents such as perfume, cigarette smoke or flowers can irritate the trachea so you start coughing. Other problems with fragrance hypersensitivity are dull and runny eyes. The size of the problems varies from person to person.
In gastroesophageal reflux, contents from the stomach to the esophagus leak. It can cause heartburn and acid reflux. Coughing is also a common problem. There are several things you can do yourself to reduce the hassle. For example, you can avoid foods that you know cause trouble and avoid eating late.
There are also prescription drugs that you can use temporarily.
More unusual causes of cough
There are more diseases and conditions in the lungs and heart that can cause coughing. Often you will also get other clear symptoms. But not always, and it is therefore important to seek care if you have been coughing for several weeks without any clear cause.
Here are some examples of other diseases that can cough:
- heart failure
- lung cancer
- a blood clot in the lung
Other causes of cough
There may be more causes for cough besides illnesses.
Sometimes the cough can be caused by a piece of something that you have eaten has ended up in the trachea. Usually, you can cough up the piece, but it may get stuck. If the piece has settled so that the air does not enter the lungs, it is a life-threatening condition.
Try to cough up what is stuck in your throat. Get someone nearby to help.
Smoke, dust, strong odors and very cold air are examples of things that can irritate the airways and cause coughing. You can also cough from smoking yourself.
You may get a sudden cough if you have inhaled gas that irritates the respiratory tract or chemicals such as lighter fluid or kerosene. Then so-called chemical pneumonia can also develop within a few hours. It is treated in hospitals.
Medicines can cause coughing
Some medicines can cause a dry cough. The cough may come after you have used the drug for a long time, usually several months or years. This applies in particular to certain blood pressure medicines and medicines for heart failure within the drug group ACE inhibitors.
The cough disappears when you are finished with the treatment. If the cough is troublesome, you can change the medication.
Cough for unknown reasons
Sometimes it is not possible to find a clear cause of the cough, and sometimes the cough remains even though the disease that caused the cough has healed. Then you often get to try cough medicine to see if it can help.
At the health center, your doctor will find out more about your cough. You will be able to answer questions about how long you have coughed, how the cough sounds if you cough more at any time of the day and if you have any other symptoms.
The doctor looks in your throat, listens to your lungs and how your breathing sounds. Sometimes the doctor listens to your heart.
Sometimes, answers from blood tests are needed for the doctor to assess what is causing your cough. Coughing is common if you have a viral infection, but sometimes you may also have a bacterial infection. Therefore, sometimes a bacterial test may also be needed. A doctor or nurse can try by swiping with a cotton swab in your throat.
Sometimes your lungs need to be x-rayed for the doctor to see what the cough is. Sometimes you are also examined with X-ray, so-called computed tomography.
The function of the lungs can be examined
If your doctor suspects you have, for example, asthma or COPD, you may undergo an examination to find out how your lungs work. It is done through a lung function test. The tests can be done in several ways, but the most common methods are called spirometry and PEF measurement.
In an allergy investigation, you will be able to answer questions about your complaints. This is often enough for the doctor to be able to diagnose. Sometimes a so-called dot test or an allergy blood test may also need to be taken.
You usually need to be examined more if the doctor suspects you have tuberculosis, for example. The same applies if you have symptoms suggestive of heart failure, lung cancer, a blood clot or sarcoidosis.
If you have severe problems for a long time and the doctor has not found any cause, you may need to do a bronchoscopy. Then the doctor examines your trachea and lungs using a special instrument that is inserted into the trachea.
Influence and participate in your care
You can seek care at any healthcare center you want throughout the country.
You should understand the information
In order for you to be involved in your care and treatment of cough, it is important that you understand the information you receive from the healthcare personnel. Ask questions if you don’t understand. For example, you should receive information about treatment options and how long you may have to wait for care and treatment.
You have the opportunity to get help from an interpreter if you have a hearing loss.