The Cough – Possible Causes and Treatment Options


Cough is actually the body response to help clear particles and secretions from the lungs and help prevent infection.   A cough everyone once in awhile is normal, however if it continues it can be due to an infection (viral or bacteria), allergic reaction, acid reflux, a medication reaction or asthma.

A cough where there is no production of mucus is sometimes called a “dry” cough as opposed to a “wet” or “productive” cough that is associated with mucus production.

Possible causes of cough include:

1)   An infection of the airways or lungs

2)   Postnasal drip – mucus from the nose drips down or flows along the back of the throat and drain into the bronchioles of the upper airway and can cause irritation and cough

3)   Asthma or COPD (emphysema) can create cough and make it hard to breathe

4)   Acid reflux is when acid that is normally in your stomach backs up into the esophagus (the tube that carries food from your mouth to your stomach)

5)   Medication reaction – this happens with about 10% people who take ACE inhibitors for blood pressure

6)   Smoking cigarettes

7)   Cancers – A cancer of the lung or upper airway can cause a cough, but cancer is a less common cause than those other possibilities listed above

Testing:  There are some tests that can be done in addition to a medical provider performing a thorough examination.

1)   Chest X-ray

2)   Breathing tests – these are also called pulmonary function tests and can be helpful to diagnose asthma or chronic lung disease such as emphysema

3)   Allergy skin test – these tests are helpful to find out if there is an environmental allergic that could be causing symptoms including cough

4)   CT or Cat scan of the chest or sinuses – this is sometimes done to get a detailed view of the structures inside the chest and can be more useful if there are abnormalities that are seen on chest x-ray that are difficult to visualize.  The sinuses are also examined using a CT scan and for individuals with sinus pressure/pain and cough it may help determine whether surgery may be helpful

5)   Bacterial culture – sometimes a culture of the mucus (sputum) is done to determine the type of bacteria that are present within the lungs

6)   Bronchoscopy – a test where a physician inserts a special scope with camera down the throat and into the upper airways of the lungs to look for abnormalities

7)   Nasopharyngoscopy – a test where the ear/nose/throat physician inserts a scope with camera through the nose and down into the throat to examine the areas of the nose, throat and larynx, trachea and vocal chords to look for abnormalities

8)   pH probe – a test that involves putting a tube in the mouth and down into the esophagus to look for acid entering the esophagus and causing cough

Cough treatments:  There are many treatments for cough and we usually tailor the treatment to the individual patient depending on the cause of the cough.  Possible treatments might include antibiotics if the cause is a bacterial infection, a bronchodilator, if the cause is asthma, an acid reducer if the cause is stomach acid, or antihistamines if the cause is excess mucus production from allergies.  If the cause is an allergic reaction or side effect, that medicine or substance is avoided.

This document is for informational purposes only, and should not be considered medical advice for any individual patient.  If you have questions please contact your medical provider.


I hope that you have found this information useful.  Wishing you the best of health,

Scott Rennie, DO



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