chronic cough

Chronic Cough 101: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment & Remedies

Learn what constitutes a chronic cough, its causes, as well as the treatment, medicine and home remedies available to stop chronic cough.

by Nathasha Lee

Have you experienced a cough that just wouldn’t go away? If your cough is not improving after several weeks, it might be more than just a cold or seasonal flu. This condition is known as a chronic cough, and it can have several different causes. We will talk more about when a cough is classified as a chronic cough, how you can receive treatment, and how you can prevent and remedy it at home.

What is Chronic Cough?

Chronic cough is a cough that doesn’t go away for at least three weeks. A cough that lasts between three and eight weeks is classified as a subacute cough and a cough that lasts for more than eight weeks is called a chronic cough. Chronic cough is typically used to refer to cases where a persistent cough is the primary symptom. It may or may not be accompanied by other symptoms such as fever, excessive phlegm, or weight loss.

Persistent Dry Cough

In other cases, you might have a dry cough that will not go away after weeks, and this is called persistent dry cough. This cough is so named because it is typically not accompanied by phlegm or a runny nose. Besides the effects on one’s physical health, persistent dry cough can cause a lot of anxiety and frustration from constant coughing affecting one’s everyday activities.

Causes of Chronic Cough

While many cases of chronic cough can look similar, they might have a wide range of causes. Here are some common causes of chronic cough:

Post-Infectious Cough

Chronic cough can occur after a viral upper respiratory tract infection. This type of cough typically goes away after eight weeks.

Another type of post-infectious chronic cough is pertussis, commonly known as “whooping cough”, that is caused by a bacteria known as mycoplasma. In its initial onset it can resemble the common cold. Its characteristic symptoms tend to appear after one or two weeks, including vomiting after coughing and long coughing fits followed by a high-pitched “whoop” sound. These coughing fits can go up to ten weeks or more.

Cough Variant Asthma (CVA)

CVA is a type of asthma with its dominant symptom being a persistent cough. There might not be other symptoms of asthma such as wheezing or shortness of breath.

Upper Airway Cough Syndrome

Also known as postnasal drip syndrome, this is frequently caused by chronic rhinitis (inflammation of the mucous membrane in the nose) or chronic sinusitis (inflammation of the sinuses). Chronic cough caused by upper airway cough syndrome is often accompanied by a runny or blocked nose, nasal dripping, and an itchy throat.

Gastro-Oesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)

GERD is a condition where the muscles that separate the oesophagus from the stomach are weaker, causing stomach acid to often flow back into the throat. This can lead to heartburn and acid reflux. Symptoms include a sour feeling in the back of the throat, chest pain, difficulty swallowing, and vomiting. GERD can lead to chronic cough from the irritation that acidic stomach juices cause to the lining of the oesophagus.

Chronic Bronchitis

The persistent dry cough that many people with chronic bronchitis experience is also commonly known as “smoker’s cough”. Chronic bronchitis is often caused by heavy smoking that causes long-term inflammation of the lungs. This type of cough tends to be accompanied by white phlegm.

Treatment With ACE Inhibitors

ACE inhibitors are a type of medication that is used to treat hypertension by preventing blood pressure from becoming too high. However, they can also increase the cough reflex. About one in ten patients may develop a persistent dry cough from ACE inhibitor use. The cough may not develop immediately, but after months or even years of regular use.

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Chronic Cough Risk Factors

You are much more likely to get a chronic cough if you are a heavy smoker. The tar found in cigarettes damages air sacs in the lungs and can lead to a variety of lung conditions like pneumonia, emphysema and even lung cancer.

For people who do not smoke, the most common causes of chronic cough are upper airway cough disease, CVA, GERD, and treatment with ACE inhibitors. Many people with chronic cough have more than one of these conditions, for example, it is common to see CVA accompanied by GERD.

Complications of Chronic Cough

When you cough, air is forced out of the lungs to clear mucus, dust, and other particles. Though this is the body’s usual way of removing irritants from the lungs, the abrupt physical motions involved in coughing can lead to complications. Chronic cough is generally not fatal, however, serious health issues can still occur if chronic cough is left untreated that can impair your ability to carry out daily activities comfortably.

Chronic cough can lead to incontinence (loss of bladder control), or bleeding in the eye. It can also cause hernias, which is when an organ or tissue leaves the body abnormally by pushing through the tissue of the area where it normally resides. Hernias often occur around the groin and abdomen and require surgery to resolve. Cough syncope can also occur where sometimes after a vigorous fit of coughing, one might lose consciousness. This tends to be more common in people with heart conditions or asthma.

Besides direct health consequences, chronic cough can cause someone to lose sleep because it keeps them awake at night, leading to sleep deprivation that can affect your performance at work and school. The pressure exerted by coughing can cause headaches. Coughing for long periods of time can even lead to rib fractures from the physical exertion it causes.

Chronic Cough Treatment

Treatment for chronic cough can vary depending on the underlying cause of the persistent cough. In some cases, over-the-counter medication can be used to treat a chronic cough. Please check with your doctor to see if taking medication to control your cough is a suitable option.

People with CVA can be treated with inhaled corticosteroids. Inhaled corticosteroids are medicines meant to control symptoms in the long term and not as immediate relief from coughing fits. Your healthcare provider can provide corticosteroids as part of a combination medicine to relieve chronic cough.

If you have a chronic cough from using ACE inhibitors, you might have to stop using them to reduce your cough symptoms.

How to Prevent Chronic Cough

Depending on the underlying cause, preventing chronic cough would require addressing your specific health condition. For example, chronic cough caused by GERD can be relieved by taking steps to prevent acid reflux, like refraining from eating acidic and spicy foods and avoiding lying down soon after eating. It is best to consult your doctor to find out the root cause of your cough and take the appropriate steps to resolve any underlying conditions. 

Regardless of the specific cause of your chronic cough, below are some general steps you can take to prevent coughing fits:

Stay Hydrated

Drinking plenty of fluids can help to moisturise your throat and prevent coughing throughout the day.

Stop Smoking

Stopping your smoking habit will relieve chronic cough by removing a regular source of irritants found in tobacco. If you are a non-smoker voiding second-hand pollutants, for example from someone in your family who smokes, can also prevent coughing fits.

Use a Humidifier

A humidifier increases the amount of moisture in your room which can prevent a dry throat that often triggers coughing.

Chronic Cough Home Remedies

Here are some remedies that you can use to give yourself relief from symptoms of chronic cough. Though none of these should be used as a substitute for medical treatment, they can be helpful in relieving accompanying discomfort.


Ginger has anti-inflammatory properties which can help to relax the airways and ease swelling of the throat lining caused by repeated coughing. Drinking some ginger tea can be a pleasant way to ease a raw throat from constant coughing.

Honey Lemon

Honey can soothe the lining of your throat, which is especially useful if your throat feels raw and painful from coughing. With some water or tea, honey and lemon can make an alkaline mixture which also neutralises acidic stomach juices. This makes honey lemon a good remedy for people with GERD to relieve other symptoms like heartburn.

Saltwater Gargle

Gargling with warm saltwater has long been used as a traditional home remedy for coughs and sore throats. The salt in the gargle causes water to be pulled out of the tissues by osmosis, which gives relief for a swollen throat. A 2005 study conducted by Japanese researchers has also shown that gargling with saltwater is effective at preventing upper respiratory tract infections.

Coping with Chronic Cough

You might feel frustrated from dealing with constant fits of coughing, but you don’t have to be frustrated in seeking help. You can even avoid long queues at the hospital and polyclinic by consulting one of our qualified doctors online using telemedicine services. 

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About the Writer
Nathasha Lee
Nathasha Lee is a final-year Anthropology major at Yale-NUS College. She hopes her writing can make a positive difference in the lives of readers, no matter how small. In her spare time, she enjoys making art, listening to podcasts, and drinking lots of tea.
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