Reasons for Constant Coughing
Photo Credit: Liderina /

Why Do I Cough All the Time?

There are few things as annoying as a persistent cough, especially if the cause of the cough is unknown.

A couple months ago I had a cough that was nagging, but no other symptoms were present. I spent a good portion of my day coughing with no relief. My doctor was all set to order a chest X-ray if the cough didn’t improve by a certain day, when magically, the cough went away.

I now know that there is a wide range of reasons for a persistent cough. Finding the cause of the cough is key in finding relief from the cough — had I known that, I could have been feeling better a lot sooner.

What Is a Cough?

Although we all know what a cough is, we don’t know what is going on in our bodies when we cough.

A cough is actually a reflex with three phases:

  1. Breathing in.
  2. A forced exhalation with the glottis closed — the glottis is in the middle of the larynx and is the area where the vocal cords are located.
  3. The characteristic cough sound with the explosive release of air as the glottis opens.
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Types of Coughs

There are also a variety of types of coughs. The type of cough depends on the disease state of the person and what is causing the cough, but it is helpful to know these terms, as you may hear your physician say them:

  • Acute cough: a cough brought on suddenly that lasts up to three weeks
  • Subacute cough: a cough that perseveres for three to eight weeks
  • Chronic cough: a cough that lasts for longer than eight weeks
  • Productive cough: a cough that brings up contents of the lungs, such as sputum
  • Dry cough: a cough that doesn’t bring up anything
  • Nocturnal cough: a cough that occurs only at night

Causes of Coughs

Typically, a cough is a protective measure. The cough is produced by the body to get rid of contents in the lungs that aren’t supposed to be there.

Because coughs are so common — in fact, they are responsible for 30 million physician visits per year — identifying the common causes is important.

The most common cause of a cough is a virus. A viral cough is often caused by the common cold. This type of cough is irritating, but not harmful.

This cough is often acute AND productive; the cough attempts to clear the lungs of any mucus that may be accumulating. Most of the time, this cough goes away in a few days but a dry cough can last much longer. The dry cough is what we often perceive as annoying because it seems to go on forever.

Allergies and asthma are also a common cough trigger. Controlling the asthma will help to control the cough. For allergy sufferers, identifying what the allergens are and avoiding those allergens is helpful. Taking antihistamines may be helpful as well.

Irritants can cause a cough. Even for people who are not allergic, there are things that can cause a cough. Cold air, irritants in the environment, and cigarette smoke, for example, can cause people to cough.

Acid reflux can cause a cough. It may sound strange, but gastroesophageal reflux (GERD) is a very common cause of a chronic cough. The acid from the stomach can back up into the esophagus, irritating the throat, causing the cough. This is especially common at night.

Treatment of Coughs

The treatment of a cough will depend on what is causing it.

  • A viral cough will go away on its own with time. Over-the-counter medications can help the symptom of the cough, but won’t cure it. Cough suppressants reduce the urge to cough. Expectorants reduce thin mucus secretions, making it easier to cough up the secretions that are irritating.
  • For a cough that is caused by allergies, the best thing to do is identify the allergen. Eliminate it from your life, if possible, or at least greatly reduce exposure. For asthma, treat symptoms with a rescue inhaler. Use the controller inhaler as prescribed.
  • For coughs caused by irritants, try to avoid the irritants. If cigarette smoke causes a cough, stay away from smoky areas and limit your exposure to smokers. Quit smoking if you smoke yourself.
  • If GERD is the culprit, there is a number of OTC and prescription medications that can help reduce acid. Pinpointing foods that cause GERD to flare will also help.

After weeks of hacking, I finally identified that my subacute cough was caused by asthma. I ended up being treated with the use of a stronger inhaler and a steroid.

One thing is for sure — next time I won’t let the cough go that long before trying to identify the cause!