When to See a Doctor About That Persistent Cough

Acute bronchitis typically gets better in 10 or fewer days. Unfortunately, the cough can stick around for weeks, according to the Mayo Clinic.

5. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

This is an umbrella term for long-term lung diseases including chronic bronchitis and emphysema. “Chronic bronchitis is notorious for causing a chronic cough,” Dr. Hoyte says. If you have this condition, you’ll experience relentless airway irritation that causes a mucus-producing cough for at least three months, with recurring attacks for at least two years. When chronic bronchitis suddenly gets worse, it could be because you have an infection that causes acute bronchitis on top of the chronic form.

Though chronic bronchitis most often happens due to smoking, things like air pollution, dust, or exposure to lung irritants can also cause it, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Then there’s emphysema, which also occurs most frequently among people who smoke. It happens when your alveoli (air sacs in your lungs) become damaged, so you can’t breathe as well. Beyond coughing that produces sputum, you might experience shortness of breath, wheezing, chest tightness, lack of energy, and frequent respiratory infections, among other symptoms.

COPD sounds really scary, but with adequate treatment, the disease is manageable. If you think you have COPD, see a doctor for help.

6. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)

When you have gastroesophageal reflux disease, stomach acid flows back into your esophagus, the tube that connects your stomach and throat. That backflow can eventually reach and irritate the lining of your throat, which can make you cough, Dr. DePietro says. “The skin lining of the esophagus is used to at least some degree of acid exposure as a result of being near the stomach, [but] the skin lining of the throat rarely sees acid reflux,” he explains.

In an awful cycle, the persistent coughing can make your GERD even worse, the Mayo Clinic says. The good news, however, is that treating the condition can help tame your cough.

7. A side effect of certain blood pressure medications

Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors are often prescribed to treat things like high blood pressure as well as conditions like heart disease, diabetes, certain chronic kidney diseases, heart attacks, migraines, and scleroderma (which is a disease that results in hardening of the skin and connective tissues), the Mayo Clinic says. ACE inhibitors work by blocking the enzyme that produces angiotensin II, which causes the blood vessels to narrow.

Though ACE inhibitors only cause side effects on rare occasions, when they do cause them, those side effects can include fatigue, dizziness from low blood pressure, headaches, loss of taste, increased potassium levels, and—you guessed it—a persistent cough, the Mayo Clinic says. (In this case, the cough is usually dry.) That doesn’t mean you should automatically stop taking your medication if you think ACE inhibitors are behind your persistent cough. Since so many things can cause a persistent cough, check in with your doctor to see whether ACE inhibitors are even really the source of your coughing in the first place. You and your doc can chat about possible alternatives if necessary.

8. Lung cancer

Let’s address the giant coughing elephant in the room: Yes, a persistent cough can be a symptom of lung cancer. With that said, there are far more common cough culprits, like the ones listed above. That said, if you have risk factors like a history of smoking, a history of secondhand smoke exposure, exposure to radon gas, a family history of lung cancer, or exposure to asbestos or other carcinogens, you might want to check in your provider, the Mayo Clinic says.

If you have a chronic cough, don’t sit on it.

It might be tempting to try to wait for your cough to sort itself out, whether because you don’t have time to visit a doctor or because you’re a little scared of what they might find. But long-term coughing can lead to complications like fractured ribs or even fainting, so you really don’t want to risk it. Instead, see your doctor about a cough, figure out the cause of your cough, and get yourself on the road to feeling better.


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