Chronic Cough: When Is It Serious?

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March 1, 2017


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This post is available in: Spanish

Occasional coughing is common. It can even be productive, helping  clear your airways of mucus and other irritants. But if a cough lasts more than six weeks, it becomes chronic and may be hiding a variety of respiratory diseases.

Chronic cough is a very common complaint among patients, affecting as many as 12 percent of the general population, according to a recent study published by The New England Journal of Medicine. Women are more affected than men, and the majority of the patients report the cough as dry or producing only small amounts of sputum (a combination of saliva and mucus).


(The Baptist Health South Florida News Team hears from  Andrés Lichtenberger, M.D., an internal medicine physician with Baptist Health Primary Care, about potential causes of chronic cough. Video by George Carvalho and Alcyene Almeida Rodrigues)

Smoking is one of the most common causes of a chronic cough. Smoking can also lead to chronic bronchitis and emphysema – a lung disease that promotes destruction and enlargement of airspaces.

Another leading cause is Asthma, says Andrés Lichtenberger, M.D., a primary care physician with Baptist Health Primary Care. He noted that “patients without knowing might have a chronic cough due to either gastric reflux, or chronic sinusitis, or a postnasal drip or because they’re using a medication that can trigger a chronic cough by itself. ”

A common cold can also set off an episode of acute coughing, but according to Dr. Lichtenberger, if it is an acute infection – bacterial or viral — it should go away within six weeks. “If it has passed those six weeks, then you certainly are dealing with a chronic cough and the reason should be identified,” he said.

Coughing dozens of times a day is not only irritating and painful, but it can also have a social, physical and psychological impact.

The American Lung Association advises if your cough is associated with high fever, shortness of breath, phlegm production, rapid breathing, chest pain or wheezing, you should seek medical attention. Coughing up blood is another important symptom and may indicate a serious illness.

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