What is cough?

Fact Checked

Cough is a reflex that aims to clear the airways of irritants and mucus such as smoke or dust. It is not an indication of anything serious. When it comes to dry cough, it is tickly and does not produce any phlegm. As for a “chesty cough”, phlegm is produced to clear up the airways.

Most cases of cough clears up within 3 weeks and do not require any form of treatment. In case of persistent cases, it is best to set an appointment with a doctor for further assessment.

Causes of cough

Short-term causes

The usual causes of a short-term cough include the following:

  • Upper respiratory tract infection (URTI)
  • Lower respiratory tract infection (LRTI)
    Croup causes a distinctive bark-like cough with a harsh sound called stridor while breathing in
  • Inhalation of smoke or dust
  • Flare-up of long-term conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma or chronic bronchitis
  • Allergies such as hay fever or allergic rhinitis

In rare circumstances, a short-term cause might be the initial sign of a health condition that leads to persistent coughing.

Long-term causes

  • Prolonged respiratory tract infection such as chronic bronchitis
  • Smoking
  • Asthma
  • Allergies
  • Bronchiectasis
  • Postnasal drip
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Prescription medications such as ACE inhibitors used in managing high blood pressure and heart diseases

In rare cases, persistent coughing can also be an indication of a serious condition such as heart failure, lung cancer, tuberculosis or pulmonary embolism.


Children with cough often have comparable causes just like with the adults. The potential causes that are quite common in children include the following:

  • Croup causes a distinctive bark-like cough with a harsh sound called stridor while breathing in
  • Bronchiolitis is a mild respiratory tract infection that leads to cold-like symptoms
  • Whooping cough

In some cases, persistent cough among children can be an indication of a serious long-term condition called cystic fibrosis.

When to consult a doctor

In most cases, there is no need to consult a doctor if the individual or child has a mild cough that lasts for 1-2 weeks. Nevertheless, it is vital to seek medical care if:

  • The cough is severe or seems to get worse
  • The cough lasts for more than 3 weeks
  • Coughing up blood or there is shortness of breath, chest pain or breathing difficulties
  • Unexplained weight loss, persistent changes in the voice and swelling or lumps in the neck.

If the doctor is uncertain regarding the cause, assessment at the hospital is required. Tests are carried out such as allergy testing, chest X-ray, breathing tests and an analysis of the phlegm sample for infection.


Even though some medications claim to suppress the cough or stop bringing up phlegm, they are not recommended. Over-the-counter cough and cold medications must not be given to children below 6 years old. As for children 6-12 years old, they can be given as long as prescribed by a doctor.

A homemade remedy that contains lemon and honey is highly beneficial and safer to use in dealing with cough. Just remember not to give honey to infants below 1 year old due to the risk for infant botulism.

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