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What is that cough trying to tell you?
How to read your cough

Date published: 11/23/2008


Coughing is a common symptom of so many ailments, it can be tough to know what yours stems from.

Productive coughs, which produce phlegm, are usually associated with allergies and viruses. Nonproductive coughs, which are dry, can indicate conditions such as asthma or acid reflux disease.

Self-diagnosing is difficult, so it's important to get a cough checked out, especially if it lasts more than two weeks.

"It's hard to tell exactly where in the chest the cough is coming from without a stetho-scope," said Dr. Andrew S. Kim said of the Allergy & Asthma Center of Fredericksburg.

Here is a breakdown of the most common kinds of cough, with tips for telling which one is keeping you up at night:

Susannah Clark: 540/374-5000, ext. 5617
Email: smclark@freelancestar.com


The typical common cold will have you coughing for seven to 10 days, and the cough will likely be productive. You might also suffer from a croup-like cough, which causes "a seal-like barking sound," Kim said.

Sore throat, sneezing and nasal congestion are other ways to know

you're probably suffering from a common cold. Kim said that the condition is appropriately named.

"From September to April, it's normal for kids to get week-long coughs about once a month," he said. "Adults should expect to get several colds each winter."

While there is no cure, doctors recommend drinking lots of fluids and getting lots of rest to speed the recovery. Over-the-counter products including cough syrup also can help ease symptoms, but parents should not give cough medicines to children under age 4.

Cough drops will not make your cough go away, but they can make your throat feel a lot less irritated.


The No. 1 cause of chronic cough is throat irritation from postnasal drainage caused by allergies, according to Kim. Allergy coughing is typically sparked by airborne substances such as pollen and dust.

Allergies can intensify with a change of climate or a change of seasons.

Along with coughing and congestion, other symptoms associated with allergies include swollen and watery eyes.

The average person produces a quart of mucus a day, and people with allergies can produce twice that, Kim said. The buildup of mucus irritates the back of the throat and causes coughing.

"People coughing from allergies are constantly clearing their throat," Kim said.

While there are effective over-the-counter allergy medications, it is important for people suffering with allergies to visit an allergist and be tested for specific reactions.


Asthma coughing is chronic and usually dry, and symptoms are often worse at night.

Coughs caused by asthma may be associated with chest tightness and audible wheezing. However, for some people with asthma, the only symptom is a nighttime cough, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America says.

Coughing from asthma is prompted by swelling and inflammation in the airways to the lungs. Severe coughing can be brought on by physical activity in people who suffer from exercise-induced asthma.

Cold air is another common trigger for asthmatic coughing.

While asthma can be life-threatening, it can be easily managed with the right prescription medication and inhalers.


Coughs caused by acid reflux disease are mostly associated with chest discomfort and are often accompanied by a bitter taste in the mouth.

The buildup of stomach acid in the esophagus can irritate the throat and cause chronic, nonproductive coughing.

Though heartburn is the symptom most commonly associated with acid reflux, more than half of people with acid reflux do not experience heartburn, Kim said.

"Often times, the only symptom for acid reflux is a cough," Kim said.

Acid reflux can be treated with over-the-counter antacids, as well stronger prescription drugs. Avoiding foods high in sugar and fat can help prevent acid reflux.


When a dry cough is accompanied by shortness of breath and an increased heartbeat, it can indicate serious cardiovascular problems, including congestive heart failure.

If your cough worsens when you lie down, it could be a sign of heart failure, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Other symptoms of heart failure include intense feelings of weakness and dizziness, and swelling in the legs.

People who are experiencing palpitations (a racing heartbeat) with their cough should seek medical attention immediately.


Coughs caused by bronchitis start out dry and hacking and turn productive after a few days. Bronchitis causes the airways in the lungs to become inflamed, sparking coughing and often a dull ache in the breastbone, says the National Institutes of Health.

Acute bronchitis usually comes on quickly and gets better after two to three weeks.

Chronic bronchitis keeps coming back and can last a long time, especially in people who smoke. It's a type of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).

Doctors often use chest X-rays to diagnose bronchitis. Treatment includes cough syrup, lots of liquids and, sometimes, an inhaler. Antibiotics don't help most cases of bronchitis, the Mayo Clinic says.


Flu coughs are usually dry and accompanied by other symptoms such as fever and body aches. Runny nose and sore throat are not common indicators of the flu.

For most healthy people, the flu, and the cough that accompanies it, will go away after five to seven days.

Treatment for the flu is similar to treatment of the common cold: plenty of fluids and rest.

The best treatment, though, is prevention. Flu shots are recommended for people of all ages, but doctors especially emphasize the shot for small children, senior citizens and people who suffer from allergies or asthma.