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Why Do We Cough: Possible Causes and Triggers

A persistent cough, as you know, can be very annoying. You can’t remain silent in a room, and a dry cough at night can hold you back from getting a good night sleep. The thing about a cough though is that it is not an illness. It is the symptom of an illness. Often a cough comes on as the last symptom of a retreating cold or viral flu. However, a cough can by triggered by reasons ranging from environmental to chronic illnesses. For instance, a simple cough is very different from Whooping Cough (also called Pertussis) which is a serious bacterial infection. In this article, we only look at a cough caused by common triggers such as cold and flu.

What is cough?

And why do we cough? Coughing is a way in which our body gets rid of foreign particles, irritants, microbes, mucus and bacteria – among other allergens from the throat. Coughing, by forcing air out of the lungs under high pressure, attempts to clear the throat of these foreign particles. There are two types of cough – a dry cough which is itchy and a chesty cough (also called a productive cough because it generates phlegm).

What could be the underlying reasons for a cough?

Finding effective treatment for a cough hinges on locating the cause. It is, therefore, best that if you do not know what is causing your cough, and the symptoms persist for more than 3 days, you see your GP.

According to WebMD, some the common triggers of cough include:

  • Asthma and allergies: For those who are allergic or have asthma, inhaling irritants such as mould can cause an overreaction in the lungs triggering a cough. The lungs try to get rid foreign substances by forcing a cough. A chronic dry cough could be a sign of mild asthma.

causes of cough

  • A viral infection: This is one of the most common causes of a cough which often appears as the flu symptoms retreat. A productive cough eliminates germy mucus from the lungs and should not be suppressed. Usually, it is not a cause for concern and if you have seen your GP for the flu, your GP would have informed you that this stage may follow.
  • Postnasal drip: This happens when the nasal passage is congested. Mucus drips down the throat and prevents breathing, initiating a cough. Postnasal drip is often a symptom of colds, sinus infections, flu and allergies.
  • Gastroesophageal reflux (GERD): This cause of a cough is often overlooked. GERD occurs following a rise of hydrochloric acid in the stomach up the oesophagus causing irritation of larynx and oesophagus and triggering a cough. It can be quite persistent and may be accompanied by a lack of sleep.
  • Environmental factors: Exposure to environmental irritants such as pollen, dust, particulate matter, chemicals and pet dander can cause cough.
  • Common cold: This is an infection that attacks the upper respiratory system. It is caused by a virus that affects the nasal passage, throat, sinuses, trachea and Eustachian tube. It is caused by one of over 250 types of viruses and can last for about ten days.
  • Chest infection: This is an infection of the airways or lungs. If it attacks the alveoli, then it is referred to as pneumonia, but if it attacks the airways, then it is bronchitis. You can get a chest infection when an infected person next to you sneezes or coughs. See your GP right away if you suspect a chest infection.

Other common causes of a cough include heart failure, whooping cough and lung inflammation. According to the Victorian Government’s Better Health Channel, parents of children and infants must seek immediate medical help if the coughing does not settle and is accompanied by some of the following symptoms:

  • Breathing that is rapid and irregular, or very noisy
  • The skin turns pale or blue
  • Refuses food or drink
  • Has a body temperature over 37°C
  • Also, ensure that the coughing is not because the child is choking or something is in their airways – this constitutes an emergency.

Often a cough seems minor, and it may be, but if you do not know the cause of a cough, see your GP immediately. Especially if it is persistent and preventing you from getting a good night’s rest. Do not attempt to self-diagnose. Only a GP is qualified to diagnose the cause and the potential risk, and prescribe treatment.

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