7 Reasons You Can't Stop Coughing

Is your cough caused by a cold virus, post-nasal drip, pneumonia, or something else entirely? Whether you're suffering from a dry cough, persistent cough, or chest congestion, use this guide to determine what's triggering the annoying symptom. Plus, experts share the best home remedies for coughing to help you feel better, fast.

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Photo: GettyImages

Everybody coughs; it's the way your body clears your airway, according to MedlinePlus. Most cases of cough are temporary, said Peter Dicpinigaitis, MD, director of the Montefiore Cough Center and professor of clinical medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. But even a short-term cough can be a sign of a bigger health issue that needs to be addressed by a healthcare provider, according to MedlinePlus. Here's how to narrow down the possible culprits—from asthma to pneumonia to whooping cough—so you can get better, fast.

01 of 08

A Cold Virus

A cough you've had for three weeks or less is most likely due to the common cold, according to MedlinePlus. The common cold can be caused by one of several viruses and is very contagious, according to Johns Hopkins. You may experience a mild, hacking cough with the common cold. Unfortunately, this cough can persist for a month or more after the rest of your symptoms are gone, according to Harvard Health. "The virus irritates nerve endings in your air passages, and they can stay sensitive for quite some time," said Dr. Dicpinigaitis.

If the cough becomes more severe, you may instead have the flu, rather than the common cold, according to Johns Hopkins.

How to treat a cold virus cough:

There's no cure for viral infections, so you'll have to wait this one out, according to MedlinePlus. If your barking is serious and over-the-counter cough suppressants don't provide relief, your healthcare provider may prescribe medicine to calm your cough reflex, said Gerard W. Frank, MD, pulmonologist at Providence St. John's Health Center. Over-the-counter decongestants can also help thin out mucus so you can cough up more of it, according to MedlinePlus.

02 of 08

Postnasal Drip

If you've got a cough (wet or dry) that has lasted eight weeks or longer, you could be suffering from postnasal drip—according to UpToDate. Postnasal drip is when mucus accumulates in the sinuses and drips down the back of the throat, creating a tickling sensation that triggers a cough. There's no test for postnasal drip, said Dr. Frank, but you may also have a runny nose or congestion (from allergies or lingering cold symptoms, for example). Other signs include frequent throat clearing, according to UpToDate. Because it's so common, healthcare providers will often try treating it even if they're not sure of a diagnosis, said Dr. Frank.

How to treat a postnasal drip cough:

A nasal spray may help clear up the problem, or your healthcare provider may recommend steroids or antihistamines to reduce inflammation, according to Harvard Health. Pay attention to the color of your mucus: "Coughing up yellow or green mucus means your immune system has really kicked in, which could suggest a bacterial infection, like sinusitis," said Dr. Frank. In that case, you'll need antibiotics, according to Harvard Health.

03 of 08

Asthma

Asthma usually shows up as wheezing and shortness of breath, according to MedlinePlus. But coughing can also be a symptom as well. Symptoms are often worse at night or early morning, during or shortly after exercise, when you're breathing cold air or when you're around an allergen, like pet dander or pollen.

How to treat an asthma cough:

Your healthcare provider may give you breathing tests to diagnose asthma or recommend using an inhaler to see if your cough subsides, according to MedlinePlus.

04 of 08

Acid Reflux

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), also called acid reflux, is linked to an estimated 25% of chronic cough cases, according to this 2013 article from Gasteroenterology & Hepatology. When acid flows back up into the esophagus, which can cause a reflex that triggers a persistent cough. But it can be hard to diagnose. "Not everyone with GERD gets heartburn," said Dr. Dicpinigaitus. "If you're coughing after a meal, when you lie down at night, or upon arising in the morning, or if you have an intermittently hoarse voice along with the cough, these are hints it might be reflux."

How to treat a chronic cough due to GERD:

Most cases of GERD are relatively easy to remedy with antacid medications, but cough-prevalent GERD can be more stubborn, and you'll need to get checked out by your healthcare provider, said Dr. Dicpinigaitis. Also try elevating yourself when you sleep too, according to Johns Hopkins.

05 of 08

Pneumonia

Sometimes a cough may signal a more severe illness. Pneumonia can develop when a respiratory infection spreads to the lungs, causing the lungs' air sacs to fill with pus, according to Johns Hopkins. This makes it hard to breathe. Your cough may produce mucus that is green, yellow, or contains blood.

How to treat pneumonia:

A chest X-ray is the only way to know for sure whether you have pneumonia, but some healthcare providers will diagnose it by listening to your lungs with a stethoscope, said Dr. Frank. Most serious cases in adults are bacterial and treated with antibiotics, according to MedlinePlus.

06 of 08

Whooping Cough

This highly contagious disease is a respiratory illness caused by bacteria, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If you have whooping cough, you are most contagious two weeks after your cough starts. You can get whooping cough, also known as pertussis, even if you've been vaccinated (because the shot's protection weakens over time).

How to treat whooping cough:

If you start antibiotics, it may shorten the amount of time that you are contagious, according to the CDC. They can keep you from spreading the bacteria to other people—which is crucial because an infection can lead to serious illness, even death, in babies, according to the CDC.

07 of 08

Other Causes

For coughs that don't respond to the treatments above, your doctor may order a chest X-ray or a CT scan of your lungs or sinuses to further evaluate the issue, according to MedlinePlus.

If your hacking appears only at certain times or places, consider allergies or sensitivity to irritants like mold, pollution, or smoke, according to MedlinePlus.

08 of 08

Home Remedies for Coughing

Need short-term relief while you're riding out a cold or the flu? A few treatments that are worth trying:

Honey: "Thick, sweet liquids, even without medication, can soothe and diminish cough," said Dr. Dicipinigaitis.

Cough drops: Cough drops can help with a cough that is dry or tickling, according to MedlinePlus.

Steamy showers: Taking a hot shower or inhaling steam from a bowl of hot water (be careful not to burn your face!) may help loosen mucus and make it easier to cough up, said Dr. Frank.

Coffee: Caffeine is a bronchodilator, meaning it can help open airways, and has been studied (with inconclusive results) as a potential asthma remedy—but it should never take the place of an inhaler for someone who needs one, warned Dr. Frank.

There are a variety of reasons you may be coughing. Whether you have a cold, asthma, pneumonia, pertussis, or postnasal drip, consult your healthcare provider to figure out the best treatment options for you.

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