Why Do People Cough And What Causes It?

By Wendy Innes. May 7th 2016

Coughs are something that happens to everyone, but can be the source of much discontent. So why do they happen, what do they mean and what can be done about them? The answers are really very simple and usually not a cause for concern.

Why Do They Happen?

Coughs are a natural reflex that protect the airway and keep environmental irritants and mucus from reaching the lungs. When an irritant enters the airway, nerves in the airway send a signal to the brain that tells the muscles in the chest and abdomen to contract and expel a large amount of air with significant force to dislodge the irritant. Although it can be annoying, coughing is an essential function that allows the body to protect itself and heal.

Coughs are either acute, meaning that they happen suddenly and don't last long, or chronic, meaning that they hang around for a while, as is the case with some upper respiratory conditions. A cough itself is not life threatening, but it can be a sign of a bigger problem that could be if left untreated.

What Causes People To Cough?

In most cases, coughing occurs as a result of environmental irritants. Coughs can also happen when mucus gets into the airway. This is most common in those with conditions such as asthma, or when a person has an upper respiratory infection. Listed below are some of the more common causes of coughs.

Acute Coughs:

  • Pollen
  • Smoke
  • Dust
  • Pet Dander
  • Cold
  • Mold spores
  • Cleaning chemicals

Chronic Coughs:

  • Asthma
  • COPD
  • GERD
  • Bronchitis
  • Pneumonia
  • Cystic Fibrosis
  • Emphysema
  • Laryngitis
  • Congestive Heart Failure
  • Lung Cancer
  • Various bacterial and viral lung infections

An acute cough will usually only last a few days and typically doesn’t require medical attention, although allergy sufferers may need some prescription medication to keep their allergies under control. Chronic coughs that last for several weeks or are accompanied by chest pains, or coughs in which a person is coughing up blood or mucus do require prompt medical attention to prevent further complications.


The treatment for coughs will depend on what is causing the cough. If the cough is acute, then treatment is typically very simple and can be done at home. If the cough is more severe or chronic, treatment from a doctor is usually required, but there are complimentary treatments that can be performed at home to help ease discomfort. These treatments include simple home and herbal remedies. Below are some examples of home treatment for coughs:

  • Cough drops or hard candy: Sucking increases the saliva produced in the mouth which can help free the airway of irritants. Cough drops also contain ingredients that are designed to soothe the airway such as menthol or honey.
  • Over-the-counter cough syrup: There are many different types available for relatively inexpensively. Some of them are even organic or herbal. Just be sure that if they are used for children that they don't contain alcohol and that the dosing instructions are followed carefully. Also those with high blood pressure may want to look for cough medications that are specifically formulated for them.
  • Allergy medication: There are several medications available that are taken once daily that reduce or eliminate the body's immune responses to allergens. They are available over-the-counter or by prescription.
  • Vaporizers and humidifiers: These machines add moisture to the air, which can help soothe airways. Some use warm steam while others use a cool mist. Most doctors recommend a cool mist vaporizer for coughs, but the truth is that the one that is most effective is a matter of personal preference. Some people prefer warm steam while others prefer a cool mist and both are effective.
  • Topical ointments: Menthol scented topical ointments can be rubbed on the chest to help ease coughs. This is particularly effective at night when trying to sleep.

For more information on cough remedies, read Simple Cough And Cold Remedies For A Fast Recovery.

When To Call The Doctor

Individuals who experience any of the following symptoms should schedule a visit to the doctor as soon as possible.

  • Persistent cough that lasts more than a few days
  • Fever
  • Aches
  • Chills
  • Coughing up blood or mucus
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Hives, swollen face or throat
  • The cough gets worse when lying down
  • A barking cough
  • Any cough in a child under three months old

The majority of coughs will clear up on their own, without medical intervention and are no cause for great concern. Though they can be annoying at times, they shouldn't be a source of anxiety. Coughs are just something that humans have to live with and when one considers their purpose, it's easy to see that we wouldn't really want to live without them.


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