Got a cough that’s waking you up at night? Annoying coworkers during the day? We can relate. Coughing is our body’s natural response to irritation in your throat and lungs — but when it affects you, it doesn’t feel natural at all.
Not all coughs are created equal — most will go away on their own, while others can be a sign you need a doctor fast. Coughs often occur with other symptoms like sore throat, runny nose, fever, or pain from an ear infection. To find out what’s causing your cough, your doctor may ask you the following questions:
Is it dry or wet?
A dry, hacking cough typically means that something is irritating your airways, such as smoke or something in the air that you’ve breathed in. A wet cough, also known as a productive cough, is one that brings up phlegm or mucus. It is often associated with an upper respiratory tract infection, like the common cold. If the mucus doesn’t clear, you could be at risk for a secondary bacterial infection. Bacteria thrive in conditions of heavy mucus.
What does it sound like?
Certain coughs make distinct sounds that you should listen out for. A harsh, dry cough that sounds like a barking seal could be croup. Severe fits of fast coughing that creates a “whoop” sound — gasping for air, or even vomiting, could be whooping cough. If you hear these sounds, please talk to a doctor right away.
See any strange colors?
When your cough brings up mucus, that’s your body’s way of ridding it from your lungs. The color of mucus is not as important as a change in color, type,or smell. If something seems odd to you, it’s a good idea to see a doctor.
Are you having heartburn?
Believe it or not, acid reflux (heartburn) is a common cause of cough. It’s often worse when you’re lying down because you don’t have gravity helping to keep acids and mucus down. Elevating your head with an additional pillow can help. Acid reflux can also be hard to detect, meaning that all you’ll notice is a constant cough, which may act up after meals.
Making Sense of a Common Symptom
The cough is a symptom of over 90 medical conditions. Although some coughs don’t respond to medication, check with a doctor to be sure you’re following the right treatment for the type of cough you have.
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About the author
Dr. Tony Yuan is a Doctor On Demand physician who received his bachelor’s degree from Cornell University and his medical degree from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine. He completed his emergency medicine residency at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, NC and has been practicing emergency medicine in California for over 17 years. Dr. Yuan has treated tens of thousands of patients during his career as an emergency physician, handling traumas and a wide variety of acute and non-acute illnesses and injuries.