Causes and Diagnosis When You Can’t Stop Coughing
If you’ve been coping with a constant cough you may be very frustrated, in addition to being worried about what your cough might mean. What are the possible causes of this symptom, what questions might your doctor ask, and how is this kind of cough treated?
Verywell / JR Bee
There really isn’t a clear definition of a constant cough, but if you’ve been living with one you probably don’t need a definition. A constant cough is one that interferes with your day-to-day routine or keeps you from getting a proper night’s rest. It may be hard to catch your breath. It may lead to vomiting. It may leave you feeling totally exhausted. But whether it’s needing to speak on the job, attending school, caring for your children, or trying to sleep, constant coughing can clearly get in the way and reduce your quality of life.
Coughs are usually described as acute or chronic. An acute cough usually lasts three weeks or less, whereas a
chronic cough is defined as a cough lasting longer than eight weeks. (Coughs lasting between three and eight weeks are classified as subacute.) Your cough may be dry (non-productive) or you may cough up phlegm (a productive cough ). If you do have phlegm, it may be clear, yellow, green, or even blood-tinged.
Your cough may occur alone, or you may have noted other symptoms. Sometimes it can be difficult to determine if you have two symptoms, or if one is related to the other. For example, if you are feeling short of breath it may be difficult to determine if you are simply finding it hard to catch a good breath between coughing jags, or if you are truly experiencing difficulty breathing unrelated to your cough.
Causes of a constant cough can range from those that are serious to those that are mostly a nuisance. While some causes are more common than others when you add up all of the possible uncommon causes of a constant cough they are actually quite common. It’s also important to note that a cough may be due to a combination of reasons.
Less Common Causes
Below are more details on some of these more common causes of an unrelenting cough.
Less Common but Important Causes
Here are details on the less common causes of a constant cough.
When you see your doctor, the first thing she will do is a careful history and physical. Depending on your history and your exam, other tests may include:
Questions Your Doctor May Ask
The treatment of a constant cough will depend on the underlying cause.
Natural cough remedies , such as a teaspoon of honey, humidity (such as a vaporizer), and rest may be helpful no matter the cause. Drinking enough fluids can thin secretions and is almost always helpful.
If you think you have an infection, avoid using antibiotics that you may have on hand from the past. Using old antibiotics will not help if you have a viral infection, and may instead increase the chance of developing antibiotic resistance or delay the diagnosis of your cough. Lemon drops or other hard candies may be soothing, but never give these to children. Over the counter cough syrups should not be used for children unless recommended by a pediatrician.
When to Call Your Doctor
If your constant cough has lasted for more than a few days it is important to see your doctor—even if you think there is an obvious reason for your cough.
Sometimes a constant cough can be a sign of something quite serious.
If you are experiencing shortness of breath, chest pain , symptoms of blood clots (such as redness, swelling, or tenderness in your legs), or if your symptoms are frightening to you, call your doctor (or 911) immediately.
It’s also important to call 911 immediately if you have stridor (a high-pitched wheezy sound with breathing in), your cough has a sudden onset, or if you have swelling of your tongue, face, or throat, as these symptoms may signal a medical emergency. Coughing up blood, even a small amount, should be evaluated by your doctor.
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By Lynne Eldridge, MD
Sanja Jelic, MD on August 09, 2019
Medically reviewed by
Exposure to irritants
Aspiration of a foreign body
Blood clots in the lung
Congestive heart failure
Other lung diseases
Postnasal drip – Perhaps the most common cause of a constant chronic cough, is postnasal drip due to sinusitis or rhinosinusitis (inflammation of the nasal passages). This cough is often productive of clear to whitish phlegm and accompanied by throat clearing.
Viral infections – Infections such as the common cold and influenza are a common cause of a non-stop cough. The cough may be accompanied by other cold symptoms such as a runny nose, or symptoms of the flu, such as body aches.
Bronchitis – Both acute bronchitis and chronic bronchitis can cause someone to cough constantly. With chronic bronchitis, the cough is usually productive of phlegm.
Allergies – Environmental allergies such as a mold allergy , as well as food allergies, may cause a cough.
Bronchospasm – Constriction of the airways ( bronchospasm ) due to an allergic reaction or asthma can cause a cough. The cough is often accompanied by wheezing with expiration (breathing out). If there is also swelling in the neck or tongue or shortness of breath, this can be a medical emergency (anaphylactic shock ).
Asthma – Asthma may be a cause of a steady cough. It is often accompanied by wheezing and chest tightness, but in some people, a cough is the only symptom, and may be referred to as “cough variant asthma.”
Acid reflux – Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can result in constant coughing due to the back up of acid from the stomach. A very common cause of coughing, GERD often causes episodes of coughing at night after lying down, and often results in hoarseness the following morning. GERD may be accompanied by symptoms of heartburn or indigestion, or a cough may be the only symptom.
Smoking – A smoker’s cough can be non-stop at times. It is usually worst in the morning and is often productive of phlegm. It’s important to note that smoking is a common cause of other respiratory ailments such as chronic bronchitis and even lung cancer. If you smoke, ask yourself if your cough has changed in any way.
Medications – ACE inhibitors, medications that are used to treat
high blood pressure and heart failure, may cause someone to cough night and day. Examples of ACE inhibitors include Vasotec (enalapril), Capoten (captopril), Prinivil or Zestril (lisinopril), Lotensin (benazepril), and Altace (ramipril).
Exposure to irritants – Exposure to
secondhand smoke , wood smoke , cooking fumes, dust, and toxic chemicals can cause someone to cough repeatedly.
Croup – In children, croup can cause a ceaseless barking cough.
Pneumonia – Both viral and bacterial pneumonia can cause a cough, often accompanied by a fever.
COPD – Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease ( COPD ) is an important cause of a continuous cough, often accompanied by shortness of breath.
Whooping cough – With whooping cough (pertussis) periods of unrelenting coughing are often broken up by a deep breath—the whoop of whooping cough. It’s important to note that people may develop whooping cough even if they have had the diptheria/pertussis/tetanus vaccine (DPT)