A cough is your body's way of responding to irritants in your throat and airways. An irritant stimulates nerves there to send a cough impulse to your brain. The brain signals the muscles of your abdomen and chest wall to give a strong push of air to your lungs to try to expel the irritant.
An occasional cough is normal and healthy. A cough that persists for several weeks or one that brings up discolored or bloody mucus may indicate an underlying condition that requires medical attention. A cough rarely requires emergency care.
A coughing attack can be very forceful — the velocity of air from a vigorous cough through the nearly closed vocal cords can approach 500 miles per hour. Prolonged, vigorous coughing is exhausting and can cause sleeplessness, headaches, urinary incontinence, and even broken ribs.
- Asthma (most common in children)
- GERD — Gastroesophageal reflux disease
- Postnasal drip
An occasional cough is normal. But a cough that persists may signal an underlying problem. A cough is considered "acute" if it lasts less than three weeks; it's "chronic" if it lasts longer than eight weeks (four weeks in children).
Some causes of coughs include:
Common causes — acute
- Common cold
- Influenza (flu)
- Inhaling an irritant
- Whooping cough
- Acute sinusitis
- Bronchiolitis (especially in young children)
- Choking: First aid (especially in children)
- Chronic sinusitis
- Croup (especially in young children)
- Cystic fibrosis
- Hay fever
- Heart failure (congestive)
- Lung cancer
- Medications called angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors
- Neuromuscular diseases such as parkinsonism, which weaken the coordination of upper airway and swallowing muscles
- Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) (especially in young children)
Causes shown here are commonly associated with this symptom. Work with your doctor or other health care professional for an accurate diagnosis.