6 Reasons You Can't Stop Coughing

Is your cough caused by a cold virus, post-nasal drip, pneumonia, or something else entirely?

Everybody coughs, but sometimes it can happen at the most inopportune times like in a quiet movie theater, or during church or a lecture. You'll feel that tickle and the next thing you know, you're coughing and can't stop. And, in the time of Covid-19, it's uncomfortable as people turn, stare, and move away.

Everybody coughs. It's the way your body clears your airway, according to MedlinePlus. Most cough cases 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. 

But even a short-term cough can be a sign of a bigger health issue that healthcare providers should investigate, according to the National Library of Medicine

Here's how to narrow down the possible culprits—from asthma to pneumonia to whooping cough—so you can get better, fast.

01 of 06

A Cold Virus

A cough you've had for three weeks or less is most likely due to the common cold. One of several viruses causes the common cold, which is very contagious, according to the Johns Hopkins Medicine Health Library

You may experience a mild, hacking cough with the common cold. Unfortunately, that 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.

And if the cough becomes more severe, you may actually have the flu rather than the common cold.

To Treat: There's no cure for viral infections, so you'll have to wait out this one, according to the National Library of Medicine.

But sometimes, your barking is serious, and over-the-counter (OTC) cough suppressants don't provide relief. In those cases, your healthcare provider may prescribe medicine to calm your cough reflex, said Gerard W. Frank, MD, a pulmonologist at Providence St. John's Health Center. OTC decongestants can also help thin out mucus so you can cough up more of it.

02 of 06

Postnasal Drip

If you have a cough (wet or dry) that has lasted eight weeks or longer, you could suffer postnasal drip, according to UpToDate

Postnasal drip happens when mucus accumulates in the sinuses and drips down the back of the throat, creating a tickling sensation that triggers a cough. 

Dr. Frank said there is no test for postnasal drip. Still, you may also have a runny nose or congestion (from allergies or lingering cold symptoms, for example). Other signs include frequent throat clearing.

 Because it's so common, healthcare providers will often try treating it even if they're not sure of a diagnosis, according to Dr. Frank.

To Treat: 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. And in that case, you'll need antibiotics.

03 of 06


Asthma usually shows up as wheezing and shortness of breath. But coughing can also be a symptom, according to the National Library of Medicine

Symptoms are often worse at night or early morning, during or shortly after exercise, when you're breathing cold air or around an allergen, like pet dander or pollen.

To Treat: Your healthcare provider may give you breathing tests to diagnose asthma or recommend using an inhaler to see if your cough subsides, per the National Library of Medicine.

04 of 06

Acid Reflux

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), also called acid reflux, occurs in about 25% of chronic cough cases, according to a 2013 article from Gastroenterology & Hepatology. When acid flows back 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."

To Treat: Most cases of GERD are relatively easy to remedy with antacid medications. Still, cough-prevalent GERD can be more stubborn, and you'll need to get checked out by your healthcare provider, said Dr. Dicpinigaitis. 

Try elevating yourself when you sleep, too, according to the Johns Hopkins Medicine Health Library.

05 of 06


Sometimes, a cough may signal a more severe illness. For example, pneumonia can develop when a respiratory infection spreads to the lungs, causing the air sacs to fill with pus and making breathing hard. 

In that case, your cough may produce mucus that is green or yellow or contains blood.

To Treat: A chest X-ray is the only way to know whether you have pneumonia. Still, 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.

06 of 06

Whooping Cough

You can get whooping cough, also known as pertussis, even if you've been vaccinated (the vaccine's efficacy wanes over time). 

The 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.

To Treat: If you start antibiotics, it may shorten the time you are contagious, according to the CDC. They can keep you from spreading the bacteria to other people. That's crucial because an infection can lead to serious illness, even death, in infants.

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.
  • Steamy showers: Dr. Frank said that 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.
  • Coffee: Caffeine is a bronchodilator, meaning it can help open airways. Although, research has not conclusively deemed coffee a potential asthma remedy. Therefore, it should never take the place of an inhaler for someone who needs one, warned Dr. Frank.

A Quick Review

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 determine the best treatment options.

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

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

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