A cough is a tricky symptom because a wide range of issues can cause it. If the cough persists for longer than a few days, many people assume that an infection or a more serious condition is responsible. However, even a cough that lasts for weeks can originate from a minor issue. Understanding other symptoms of conditions that cause coughing can help people determine if they require medical attention.
Many airborne irritants and pollutants can stimulate a cough, and nearly every breath of air that contains these chemicals or particles will result in this reflex. Persistent coughing at home often stems from dust and mold. Sometimes, air that is too dry or too cold can also irritate the throat and cause a chronic cough.
A common reason behind a persistent cough is post-nasal drip. Excessive mucus from the nasal passages drains into the throat. This irritates the area and tickles the nerves of the nasopharynx, triggering an urge to cough, which typically gets worse at night. Post-nasal drip is extremely common during many respiratory illnesses and may persist for weeks. In some cases, it may even occur in healthy individuals.
Certain medications include a persistent cough as a possible side effect. One of the more usual culprits is angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors that treat cardiovascular conditions like heart failure and high blood pressure. Persistent coughing as a side effect primarily affects females and people with a history of smoking.
Though uncommon, persistent coughing can result from improper swallowing. This is pulmonary aspiration, though most people describe it as food “going down the wrong pipe.” Healthy people will typically aspirate small quantities that rarely affect them. However, people with neurological disorders or histories of stroke may have difficulty swallowing correctly. One of the signs of pulmonary aspiration is a persistent cough.
Wheezing and difficulty breathing are the signature symptoms of asthma, but some people present with only a persistent cough. This form of the condition, known as cough-variant asthma, produces a dry cough. A person with this variant may cough throughout the day, though it most commonly begins at night or after exposure to airborne irritants or cold air.
Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
GERD is a common condition in which stomach acid regularly flows back into the esophagus. Heartburn and pain are the usual symptoms, but around one-third of people with GERD are pain-free with a persistent cough. These symptoms often affect people who have nighttime acid reflux. They may also experience laryngitis or sleep disruptions.
Chronic Bronchitis or Bronchiectasis
Chronic bronchitis results in inflammation of the bronchial tubes that causes the airway to narrow. It also encourages excessive mucus production. Most people develop chronic bronchitis from long-term exposure to toxins like tobacco smoke or industrial air pollutants. A similar condition, bronchiectasis, occurs when long-lasting inflammation damages the tubes. It also causes a persistent cough.
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
COPD is an umbrella term for several progressive respiratory issues, including chronic bronchitis. Emphysema, the breakdown of the alveoli in the lungs, also falls under this term. A person with COPD may have one or both of these conditions. A persistent cough that can produce mucus is a common symptom. Wheezing, chest tightness, and shortness of breath are also standard symptoms of COPD.
Heart disease can sometimes mimic various lung conditions. This is particularly true of heart failure, in which breathlessness and a persistent cough are typical. In people with heart failure, the cough becomes more pronounced when they are lying flat. Some coughs are be dry while others include a thin, frothy mucus. Other signs of heart failure include leg swelling, general fatigue, and exercise intolerance.
A nagging or persistent cough can be a sign of some forms of lung cancer. However, this is rare, especially for nonsmokers. A more definitive indicator of lung cancer is a cough that includes any amount of blood and occurs along with chest pain or shortness of breath. If the cancer has spread, a person may experience pain radiating from their bones and frequent headaches.