Most coughs are caused by minor viral infections and usually clear up within a few days. But as many as one in five people have a persistent cough that just doesn’t seem to go away. And it can be hard to identify the problem, because there are a number of other health conditions that can cause a cough that seems like it’ll never end. In some situations, experiencing a persistent cough for over a week could even be a sign of an underlying issue with your respiratory system.
When Is Coughing Chronic?
Irritation of the airways anywhere from your throat to the bottom of your lungs can cause you to cough. Irritants such as dust, mucus, or infections stimulate nerves in your respiratory tract, sending a message to your brain that triggers a cough reflex. It’s normal to have small coughs to help clear your throat, but a constant cough that interferes with your day-to-day routine or keeps you from getting a proper night’s rest is probably due to a medical issue.
Coughing is classified as chronic when it lasts for at least eight weeks. A persistent cough for over a week is called an acute cough, and ones that last from three to eight weeks are called sub-acute. The time your cough lasts is important because chronic coughs usually have different causes (and treatments) than others.
Coughs are also classified as dry or productive. Dry coughs only involve coughing up air, although persistent coughing can irritate the lining of the esophagus and produce small amounts of blood. Productive coughs involve coughing up blood, phlegm, or liquid from inside of your lungs and respiratory tract.
Normally, persistent coughing for a few days is caused by an upper respiratory tract infection, such as the common cold. The infection hijacks the body’s coughing mechanism in order to help it spread outside of the infected host. However, if you have a persistent cough for over a week or develop new symptoms, it could be a sign of an underlying health problem.
Conditions That Cause Persistent Coughing
Chronic coughing can often occur as a result of environmental factors. Air pollution and cigarette smoke are common causes of a persistent cough. Even if you don’t smoke yourself, second-hand smoke or smoke in the air from nearby factories or fires can irritate your lungs and make you cough.
Causes of a constant cough can range from those that are serious to those that are mostly a nuisance. A cough can be triggered by one or a combination of reasons. If you have had a persistent cough for over a week, identifying the symptoms of your cough can help you figure out what may be causing it.
Also known as upper airway cough syndrome (UACS), postnasal drip is caused by moderate allergies or infections in your upper respiratory tract. These infections cause discomfort or mucous production in your sinuses and throat, causing a cough that usually gets worse when you lie down. Postnasal drip coughs are productive, with clear or whitish phlegm, and will usually make you feel like you need to clear your throat.
Cough Variant Asthma
Cough-variant asthma is a type of asthma in which the main symptom is a dry, non-productive cough. Asthma usually comes on in childhood but can start later in life as well. Exposure to irritants like smoke or dust can contribute to developing asthma later in life.
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease
Sometimes called emphysema or chronic bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a blanket term for several conditions that cause long-term difficulty breathing normally. COPD is typically caused by smoking, but genetic factors and exposure to certain chemicals can cause COPD even if you’ve never smoked. Coughing caused by COPD can be dry or productive and is normally accompanied by difficulty breathing.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a more severe form of acid reflux, and the third most common cause of a chronic cough and is often overlooked. For some people, typical symptoms such as heartburn may not be present, and the only symptom may be a chronic cough. A cough due to GERD is usually worse at night after lying down in bed.
Having a persistent cough for over a week could be a symptom of pertussis, commonly known as whooping cough. Most people in America receive pertussis vaccinations as children, but occasional infections can still happen. Periods of unrelenting coughing, especially if it’s accompanied by vomiting, may indicate a case of whooping cough.
Chronic coughing is one of the hallmarks of cystic fibrosis (CF). CF causes the body to make thick mucus that blocks the airways and leads to lung damage. This mucus also traps germs, making infections that can cause coughing more likely. A cough caused by CF will usually produce thick phlegm or blood, and is usually accompanied by wheezing, difficulty breathing, and a recurring stuffy nose.
Though it is unlikely, a chronic cough that persists over a long period of time may be a sign of lung cancer. Roughly half of people diagnosed with lung cancer had a cough at the time of their diagnosis, but fewer than two percent of cases of chronic coughing are related to cancer. Besides coughing, lung cancer will also typically cause shortness of breath, pain while breathing, or chronic hoarseness.
When Does Coughing Become A Problem?
It’s important to be able to differentiate between possible causes of a persistent cough, but it’s not a substitute for actual medical advice. If you experience any of the following symptoms with a persistent cough, you should see a doctor:
- A cough that lasts longer than a week: Most common infections clear up within two to five days. A persistent cough for over a week may indicate a more severe infection or other health issue.
- Symptoms that return over time: Returning symptoms usually indicate a “rebound illness,” which can be more resistant than the first infection. Symptoms that reappear periodically are likely part of a chronic condition.
- Coughing up solid objects or blood: It’s normal to cough up phlegm when you have a minor infection, but if you start coughing up blood or solid chunks, you should consult a doctor.
- A cough accompanied by a high fever: A fever over 102 degrees or one that persists more than a few days could be a sign of a serious infection, and should be seen by a doctor immediately.
- Difficulty breathing, wheezing, or chest pain: Having symptoms in your lungs and chest that make it painful or difficult to breathe after coughing indicates problems in your lower respiratory tract. This could be a sign of a chronic issue such as tuberculosis or other lung diseases .
If you are displaying any of these serious symptoms, get in touch with your healthcare provider. Your persistent cough for over a week could still be a minor issue, but it’s best to seek diagnosis and treatment with a medical professional, just in case.
What Helped Your Persistent Cough?
Let us know in the comments below!
What topics related to lung health should we cover next?
Email us your ideas at email@example.com
Are you a member of our online community?