Chronic cough

What is a chronic cough?

Most coughs cause discomfort, but they usually serve a use – when we cough, we expel germs, mucus and foreign material from our lungs. Most only last a short time. However, sometimes they linger for weeks or even months.

A chronic cough is defined as one that lasts for eight weeks or longer in adults or over four weeks in children. They can potentially be very disruptive to the patient’s life, interrupting sleep and leading to fatigue, and in severe cases, they can cause vomiting, light-headedness, and even rib fractures.

Symptoms of chronic cough:

The cough itself is a symptom of an underlying condition, but it may be accompanied by other symptoms, some of which may be a result of the coughing.

  • Stuffy nose
  • Runny nose
  • Post-nasal drip
  • Sore throat
  • Hoarseness
  • Wheezing/shortness of breath
  • Heartburn
  • Sour taste in the mouth
  • Coughing up blood

What are the causes of chronic cough?

There are several things that can cause a chronic cough:

  • Asthma
  • Chronic bronchitis
  • Infections, e.g. pneumonia
  • Smoking
  • Postnasal drip
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Certain medications, e.g. ACE inhibitors for high blood pressure

In rarer cases the following can also be responsible:

  • Bronchiectasis (damaged airways)
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Lung cancer
  • Aspiration
  • Sarcoidosis
  • Bronchiolitis
  • Whooping cough

When to see a doctor

When a cough lasts for more than a few weeks, it is worth having it checked out by a doctor. If you cough up blood, or experience weight loss, fever, or trouble sleeping, you should consult your GP or a specialist.

Treatments for chronic cough

Treatment for chronic cough depends largely on the cause, as treatment tends to be targeted at the underlying illness, rather than the symptom. For example, antibiotics may be prescribed to treat a bacterial infection, while asthma could be treated with steroids and/or bronchodilators. If you have a chronic cough, consult a doctor and follow their advice.

Which type of specialist treats chronic cough?

Specialists in pulmonary and respiratory medicine and otolaryngologists may both treat chronic cough, and other specialties may be involved, depending on the underlying cause.