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Coughs range from annoying post-cold throat clearing to the exhausting midnight barks that keep the whole house awake. Almost everyone will suffer from a cough at some point because they are caused by a huge range of irritants and illnesses.
Coughs happen so that lungs remain clear of irritants. Research has shown that the average time a cough can linger after a virus can be up to 18 days and in children it can be up to eight weeks. Treating a cough at home with over-the-counter remedies such as cough sweets, painkiller and plenty of clear fluids is usually safe but if your cough persists after three weeks have passed, a medical check up is advisable.
Here are some of the conditions that cause a cough…
Hay fever and other allergic reactions can cause coughing as your lungs try to rid themselves of irritants. Hay fever is most common in the summer months and can be controlled by antihistamines, keeping the windows closed and drying your washing indoors.
Infections of the upper respiratory tract that affect the nose, throat and sinus such as colds or flu, and lower respiratory tract infections that affect the lungs and airways like bronchitis and pneumonia, can trigger coughs as mucus is expelled from inflamed tubes and airways. Upper infections usually clear by themselves after a week or two but lower infections can be more serious.
A post-viral cough is simply a reaction to mucus trapped in the airways. Coughing clears mucus so avoid suppressants and drink fluids to help loosen the stickiness.
A post nasal drip, when mucus drips onto the back of the throat, can occur after a cold and may last for weeks. It's usually not an issue but if it lasts longer than three weeks see your doctor.
Asthma is dangerous and a cough is one of the main symptoms. Usually an asthmatic cough will be worse at night. An asthma cough is a sign that airways are irritated and inflamed and a full blown attack may be imminent.
If you've never been diagnosed with asthma but you're coughing frequently, particularly at night, it's important to see your doctor. If you already have an asthma diagnosis, a cough means your asthma is not as well controlled as it could be. You need a check up, book it soon.
Keep your inhaler with you at all times if you're asthmatic and develop a cough.
If you wake at night with a cough and are experiencing an acidic taste in your throat, it's a sign of acid reflux otherwise known as heartburn. It happens when stomach acid washes back up the throat after a large meal or rich and spicy foods. Over-the-counter treatments can help along with sitting up higher at night.
If you bring up coloured phlegm, it's likely an infection. Chest infections can cause wracking coughs that are exhausting. Often they are viral but a bacterial infection can take hold. Speak to your doctor if you think you're developing a chest infection - and keep coughing the mucus up.
Whooping cough usually affects young children, but it can develop at any age. The unmistakable 'whooping' noise often accompanied by vomiting is frightening particularly when coughing fits prevent the patient drawing breath. It's treatable with fluids and painkillers, but it's contagious and youngsters need to see the doctor as complications can be fatal. Whooping cough can last up to six weeks.
If you are coughing up blood and have experienced weight loss, this can indicate tuberculosis (TB). It's on the rise again after near extinction. See your doctor right away if you cough up blood, no matter if you've only had the cough a day. TB is an infection that needs treatment with antibiotics over a long period of time.
Smoking builds up tar and irritants in the lungs which your body tries to clear through coughing.
Continuing to smoke can lead to irreversible lung damage and COPD but by quitting you can be clear of a smoker's cough in months. Quitters may find they cough up large amounts of phlegm and a black substance as the lungs clean themselves out.
Smoking can lead to lung cancer. A persistent cough with weight loss is the common symptom. Lung cancer is the second most common in the UK with 44,500 people diagnosed each year. Most symptoms don't appear until the cancer has spread so any persistent cough need investigation. Early detection saves lives.
Heart problems, such as heart failure, can cause a buildup of fluid in the lungs, which leads to coughing and a shortness of breath. Medication can control fluid levels. Other signs of heart failure are a rapid heartbeat, weight loss, and swollen ankles.
Although coughing is an everyday event, if it lasts longer than three weeks, you're breathless, you have unexplained weight loss or lumps then medical advice is needed.
Post cold coughs can be treated effectively by a pharmacist who can recommend products and actions, such as inhaling steam, based on the type of cough you are experiencing. However, if symptoms worsen a doctor needs to check out the reasons for your cough.