Ahem! Sometimes, especially during cold and flu season, it seems like everyone is coughing at you. However, not all coughs are created equal. Is that a cold cough or a smoker's cough? You could be coughing for many reasons, so it's important to know your coughs—especially when it comes to treating them successfully.

Common cough causes

Some coughs are dry, while others are productive. A productive cough is one that brings up mucus. If you're suffering from a common cold or the flu, you might first experience a dry cough, followed by a productive one. That's because the viruses invade the lungs, and the lining of your airways is affected. Then your mucus becomes stickier and clings to the lungs.

Besides cold and flu, common causes of coughs include:

  • Allergies and asthma
  • Lung infections, such as pneumonia or bronchitis
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Sinus infection—leading to postnasal drip
  • Lung disease or tumors
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Cigarette smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke
  • Exposure to air pollution

Coughs can be either acute or chronic. Acute coughs usually begin suddenly and are often caused by a cold, flu or sinus infection. They generally go away after two to three weeks. Chronic coughs last longer.

Whooping cough

Other cough causes include bacterial infection such as whooping cough (pertussis). If you've ever heard this cough, you know why it's called that. At the end of a coughing fit, the intake of breath often makes a high-pitched whooping noise.

It may sound funny, but it's no laughing matter. When you have whooping cough, you get long coughing fits that make it hard to breathe. In fact, you might even turn blue due to lack of oxygen or break blood vessels around your eyes. Bursts of coughing happen more often during the first one to two weeks, then remain constant for two to three weeks, and then gradually happen less frequently. Whooping cough can affect people of any age, though it is rare in babies and adults.

Whooping cough is one of the most common diseases in the United States that can be prevented by a vaccine. Most children are vaccinated, and the vaccine protects them. However, protection from the childhood vaccine fades over time. Adolescents and adults should be revaccinated. Also, whooping cough vaccines are not 100 percent effective. If you're exposed, even if you're fully vaccinated, you could still catch this highly contagious disease.

Croup

Croup, which is swelling around the vocal cords, is common in infants and children. Many things can cause croup. This kind of cough sounds like a seal barking. Most children have what appears to be a mild cold for several days before they get the barking cough. As they cough more, kids with croup may find it hard to breathe.

Curbing your cough

A cough can be painful as well as annoying, but most of the time you don't need to treat it. If it's caused by a cold or the flu, it will usually go away on its own. Over-the-counter cough medicines can help you to cough less (or less painfully). That helps if the cough is keeping you awake at night or irritating your throat. But some types of cough should not be treated with cough medicines, because the cough is helping to keep your lungs clear so you can breathe. These include coughs caused by smoking, emphysema, pneumonia, asthma or ongoing bronchitis.

Menthol throat lozenges and sprays can soothe your throat. Medications like pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) can help dry up the mucus in the sinuses and stop postnasal drip. Sitting in a steam room or taking a hot shower with a lot of steam can help thin and loosen mucus in the chest. Inhaling a vapor mist from a humidifier also works well, especially if you have a cold. Sipping hot herbal tea with lemon and honey is a natural way to soothe your throat when you have a cough.

Alarming coughs

When is a cough more than just irritating? If you have shortness of breath or difficulty breathing for more than a moment, you should call 911. The same goes for a cough that's accompanied by a rash or spots, a swollen face, or a constricted throat with difficulty swallowing.

If you have any of the following, call your doctor immediately:

  • A violent cough that begins suddenly
  • A high-pitched sound when you inhale
  • Spitting blood when you cough
  • Fever (may indicate a bacterial infection)
  • Thick, foul-smelling, yellowish-green phlegm (may indicate a bacterial infection)
  • A history of heart disease, swelling in your legs or a cough that worsens when you lie down (may indicate congestive heart failure)
  • Exposure to someone with tuberculosis
  • Night sweats or unintentional weight loss (may also indicate tuberculosis)

If your baby younger than 3 months old gets a cough, contact your pediatrician right away. If your cough lasts longer than 10 to 14 days, you should also talk to your doctor.

Published on Jan. 3, 2011; updated on May 23, 2014.