Cough and whooping cough health facts
- A cough is the body’s way of clearing the airways, which occurs by drawing a deep breath and the muscles of the chest, abdomen and diaphragm contracting with force.
- Coughing is a normal function of the body and can be voluntary or involuntary.
- A persistent one could be a concern and should be evaluated by one of our providers.
- We often suggest relieving a cough with at home remedies and over-the-counter medications.
- Whooping cough is a specific type, caused by a bacterial infection and requires evaluation and treatment.
- Whooping cough primarily affects children and infants, for whom it can be very serious and even fatal.
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What causes coughing?
Coughing is an important participant in the body’s defense against sickness and disease. It removes microbes, particles and mucus from the respiratory system. This protects the lungs from becoming inflamed or infected. The American Academy of Family Physicians reports that it is the fourth most common symptom people visit a doctor for, with more that 30 million visits a year.
How the body coughs
When an irritant is present in the airways or throat, a cough is the body’s reaction to it.
- It starts with a sharp inhale of air or an irritant, drawing it deeply into the lungs.
- Next, the glottis (part of the larynx) shuts, closing off the windpipe to the lungs.
- The irritant triggers the nerves to send that message to the brain.
- The brain then informs the muscles in the abdomen and chest to send air outward from the lungs to try and remove the irritant.
- With the glottis being closed, a lot of pressure builds in the airways.
- When the glottis opens, the air rapidly rushes out, resulting in the hacking or barking noises that we call a cough.
Having a cough from time to time is healthy and normal. However, one that continues for more than a few weeks may be a cause for concern. If it produces bloody or discolored mucus, it could need medical attention.
Sometimes, coughing can be really vigorous. Coughing that is forceful and extensive can bother the lungs. This can cause even more coughing. This cycle is tiring and can cause other ailments like dizziness, fainting or urinary incontinence.
Symptoms and triggers
The first step to getting relief from coughing is learning the cause. It can often be difficult to identify what is triggering it. The good news is that the coughing usually goes away once the underlying condition is treated.
A symptom of a cough is the involuntary action of coughing. Sometimes symptoms of a cold can accompany it. Several common triggers can lead to coughing.
- Viruses like the common cold and flu are often the culprits behind a cough. Coughing because of these viruses can be a nuisance, however it helps a person to get rid of mucus from the lungs. On occasion, “dry” coughs produced from a virus can linger for weeks or months.
- Smoke, cold air or strong scents (like perfume) can produce coughing as these could irritate the lungs.
- Being affected by allergies or having asthma can also trigger coughing. Inhaling something like pollen or mold could cause a cough, as the lungs are being protective of outside irritants.
- When experiencing congestion, mucus from the nose can drip down into the throat. Postnasal drip caused by congestion can also produce coughing. Postnasal drip can also be triggered by the flu, colds, allergies or sinus infections.
- Other conditions like acid reflux, aspiration during swallowing, sleep apnea and lung inflammation can all result in coughing.
- Less commonly, chronic coughs can be triggered by underlying diseases like cystic fibrosis or lung cancer.
Treating the common cough
Most of the time, a person can self-treat a cough. But one should seek help from our providers if it is accompanied by a fever of 100° Fahrenheit or higher, if it causes wheezing, or if yellow or green phlegm is coughed up.
Sometimes coughing is a symptom of a cold or the flu. Many at home remedies and over-the-counter options can alleviate the discomfort.
- Drinking warm liquids like tea or broth heat up the airways. These liquids will keep a person hydrated, but the warmth helps to break up mucus. This makes it easier to cough it up.
- A teaspoon of honey will coat the throat and can sooth a sore throat from coughing.
- Cough medicine can help to break up mucus or calm the coughing. Expectorants help break up mucus while cough suppressants reduce the impulse to cough. These can be purchased over the counter. However, consulting with a doctor or pharmacist on which type would work best may be helpful.
- Use a vaporizer or humidifier while sleeping. They create steam, which can help loosen mucus, making it easier to clear out.
- Getting plenty of rest will likely help to get rid of coughing faster. Take it easy for a few days to increase the chances of a quicker recovery.
Persistent cough (chronic cough) & treatment
A persistent cough is when coughing lasts for eight weeks or longer in adults. Longstanding tobacco smokers (both former and current) have a high chance of developing a chronic, or persistent, cough. Other causes of persistent coughing are acid reflux, asthma, postnasal drip, infections, some medications, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and other conditions or diseases.
A cough is considered persistent in children if it lasts longer than four weeks. This type of cough usually interrupts sleep patterns, which can cause exhaustion. If it interferes with daily tasks and overall well-being, seeing a doctor can be beneficial.
Other symptoms and signs can develop. These may include:
- A runny or stuffy nose.
- A feeling of liquid running down the back of the throat (postnasal drip).
- Frequent throat clearing and sore throat.
- Wheezing and shortness of breath.
- Heartburn or a sour taste in the mouth.
- Coughing up blood (rare).
Treating a persistent cough
Our providers may run tests to determine the cause. These could include X-rays, a lung function test and lab tests. The cause determines the treatment. Some persistent coughing may have more than one cause.
We may recommend cough suppressants to bring the patient quick relief while in the diagnosis stage. But over-the-counter medications are not recommended, as they have no effect on persistent cough.
Treatments include the following:
- If the coughing is asthma related, we may prescribe inhaled corticosteroid and bronchodilator drugs.
- Decongestants and antihistamines can treat allergy or postnasal drip coughs.
- Antibiotics can fight infections that may cause persistent coughing.
- Acid blockers for coughing due to acid reflux.
Whooping cough (pertussis) & the whooping cough vaccine
Unlike a persistent cough, whooping cough (pertussis) is a highly contagious bacterial infection that affects the upper respiratory tract, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It causes inflamed airways and severe coughing spells. This can lead to the high-pitched “whooping” noise that happens when air is inhaled.
Whooping cough is usually spread when an infected person sneezes or coughs within close proximity of others. Infants are the most likely to get whooping cough, and infants younger than 6 months make up the majority of fatalities from the disease.
Anyone can contract whooping cough. Children younger than 4 and adults over 60 are especially at risk if they do get it. This is because their chance of complications is greater than other age groups. These include:
- Infections like pneumonia.
- Straining during intense coughing spells can cause hernias.
- Death (rare).
Whooping cough symptoms & treatment
The symptoms of whooping cough can occur in three different stages. The infection can last up to 10 weeks or longer. The first symptoms can present like the common cold. This includes sneezing, a runny nose, mild coughing and a low fever.
After 7 to 10 days of these symptoms, a dry hacking cough can appear. This can produce bursts of unstoppable, forceful coughing. During the last stage, the violent coughing spells can intensify and cause extreme fatigue, vomiting or result in a blueish tint to the skin.
We will prescribe antibiotics to treat the bacteria-related whooping cough. These are generally taken for 2 weeks. Patients should take these antibiotics until the dose is completed. We may recommend a humidifier, and to keep younger children calm so as not to trigger the coughing.
Whooping cough vaccine
In the United States, whooping cough is one of the easiest diseases to prevent through vaccination. We commonly give the whooping cough vaccine (DTaP) to children at ages 2, 4 and 6. It can also be given at 15-18 months of age. A booster is recommended at 4 to 6 years old.
Those caring for infants or living with them should also get vaccinated. However, the protection of the whooping cough vaccine can wear off over time. We recommend that adults and teens get a booster shot (Tdap). The whooping cough vaccine and booster shot also protect against tetanus and diphtheria.