Coughing can be annoying, uncomfortable and even distressing. If you’re experiencing a new or ongoing cough – it helps to know what might be causing it.
What is coughing?
Coughing is a natural reflex. We all do it – it’s the body’s way of getting rid of irritants in our respiratory system. This allows us to breathe easier.
The respiratory system refers to the parts of the body which are allow us to breathe. Broadly speaking this includes the nose, throat, windpipe and lungs, as well as all the tissues within the lungs such as the bronchi and alveoli (the airways and air sacs within the lungs).
Coughing is caused by the rapid release of air from the lungs, which also serves to expel any particles, debris or mucus that may be lodged in the respiratory system.
Persistent coughing can be uncomfortable but is usually nothing to worry about. Coughs usually last around 2 -3 weeks on average. If they last longer than this, consult your doctor.
What is causing my cough?
An infection – whether caused by a virus or bacteria – is the most common cause of a cough. An infection could either be an infection of the upper airways, or a chest infection. Upper airway infections are relatively common and usually follow a bout of cold or ‘flu. Chest infections need to be monitored closely as they can lead to complications such as pneumonia1.
Coughs caused by an infection can be either wet and ‘productive’, or dry and tickly. They are caused either by the need to shift mucus and phlegm that’s settled in your airways, or by inflammation and irritation in the respiratory system itself.
This type of cough can linger for a week or two after your other cold or ‘flu symptoms have gone.
Also, if you have stuffy and congested nose, the mucus in your nasal passageways can drip down the back of your throat causing irritation and tickling, triggering a cough. This is known as postnasal drip.
Heartburn, or acid reflux, is when acid from the stomach makes its way up to the throat. Heartburn is common, but if it happens frequently it can be a sign of gastro-esophageal reflux disease (GERD). This can cause a persistent, dry cough2.
If you stand down-wind of the barbeque on a summer’s day, it’s likely you’ll be left coughing. That’s because environmental elements – like smoke – can enter the respiratory system and cause irritation. Other common environmental irritants include micro-particles from aerosols, traffic fumes, air pollution, cigarette smoke or chemical fumes.
Even something as simple as sleeping with your mouth open in a room with the heating on high can give you a dry throat.
Your coughing reflex can be set off when your body detects allergens or foreign particles in your nose, mouth or airways. In fact, you can have a complete allergic reaction including a runny nose, sneezing and watery eyes when you encounter an allergen. This is basically your body fighting to get rid of what it perceives as a harmful invader. If you’re a hayfever sufferer, you’ll be familiar with the discomfort of a scratchy throat when pollen season comes around. However, coughing due to an allergen could be caused by anything from dust, pollen, pet hair or dander, or mould spores.
So now you know what is causing your cough – but what could help? Ways to help your cough.
Last updated: 29 April 2020
1 & 2 https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/conditions/cough