A cough is a natural reflex that allows your body to clear the air passages of substances that cause irritation. It occurs when an irritant in the throat or airway triggers the lungs to forcefully expel air in an effort to dislodge the irritant. Coughing is normal, and something we all do on occasion. Should it persist more than a few weeks, it’s a good idea to seek medical attention to rule out an underlying condition.

Different Types of Cough

Coughs are classified differently, depending on their type and timing. It is acute if it lasts less than three weeks, and chronic if it persists longer than eight.

A productive cough is one in which sputum (mucus) is produced. A nonproductive cough is dry and does not produce sputum. Productive coughs are healthy and should not be suppressed. They help to rid the lungs of mucus. There are many conditions that can cause a productive cough including viruses such as the common cold, infections, acid reflux, postnasal drip, smoking, and chronic lung diseases. Nonproductive coughs are often characterized by a hacking or wheezing sound, and may be the result of colds, allergies, asthma, bronchial tube spasms, airway blockages, and ACE inhibitors (medications used to control blood pressure).

When to Seek Treatment

A cough that doesn’t disappear after a few weeks warrants medical attention. Because it is a symptom rather than a disease, it may indicate an underlying condition. You should also see a doctor if your cough is accompanied by fever, blood, or excessive phlegm production; disrupts your sleep or normal activities; or causes breathing difficulties.

Your doctor will give you a thorough physical examination and is likely to administer diagnostic and imaging tests in order to figure out what is causing your cough. These might include X-rays, CT scan, MRI, lung function testing, and endoscopic tests of the trachea, nostrils and esophagus.

Treatment might involve medications such as cough suppressants, antihistamines, decongestants, acid blockers, or asthma drugs. It may be necessary to make changes to your lifestyle, such as quitting smoking or eliminating troublesome foods from your diet.