Why do we cough?

Ever have a cough that keeps you up at night and never seems to go away? You prop yourself up with five pillows just to get a bit of sleep, and try home remedies, such as tea and honey, and extra strength cough medicine but nothing seems to work. You begin to wonder. . . does coughing serve any purpose at all, or is it just a clever method that viruses use to spread?

Coughing is a normal reflex to clear the airway of small particles, microorganisms, mucus, or food or drinks accidentally going down “the wrong pipe.” But when we are plagued with a pesky cold or flu infection, cough takes on a new dimension.

What often starts as a tickle in the throat at the first sign of an upper respiratory tract infection can easily turn into a full-blown dry cough, most likely followed by a hacking, mucus-producing cough that can be very uncomfortable.

Coughing is a way in which our body gets rid of foreign particles, irritants, microbes, mucus, and bacteria – among other allergens from the throat. Coughing, by forcing air out of the lungs under high pressure, attempts to clear the throat of these foreign particles.

There are two types of cough – a dry cough which is itchy and a chesty cough (also called a productive cough because it generates phlegm). Here are some things that might cause coughing:

Allergies and asthma: If you have them, inhaling a trigger such as mold can cause your lungs to overreact. They’re trying to cough out what’s bothering them.

Irritants: Even if you’re not allergic, things such as cold air, cigarette smoke, or strong perfumes, can set off a hacking spell.

Postnasal drip: When you’re congested, mucus drips down from your nose into your throat, and makes you cough. You can get postnasal drip from colds, flu, sinus infections, allergies, and other problems.

Acid reflux: When you have heartburn, stomach acids back up into your throat, especially at night. They can irritate your windpipe and make you cough.

Flu and the common cold: Cold and flu viruses attack our bodies through our nasal lining. In response, our immune systems try to fight back. Mucus production stimulates nerve receptors, making us feel compelled to cough.

Other causes: Many other problems — lung inflammation, pneumonia, sleep apnea, and drug side effects — can be triggers. Get coughs that won’t go away checked out to make sure you don’t have a separate problem.

Coughing is temporary

The good news is that most coughs clear up within 3 weeks, although some — known as postviral or postinfectious coughs — can last for up to 8 weeks.

Often a cough seems minor, and it may be. However, if you are feeling sick and do not know the cause of a cough, please call us at Prosperity Internal Medicine at 703-876-9300 for an appointment. Our group uses the latest advances in medicine, offering our patients access to innovative health management technologies, proactive team-based care, and an evidenced-based, patient-centered approach.