There are several things a person can do that might help relieve a coughing attack. However, the best way to treat a cough is to tackle the underlying cause.

Coughing is a symptom of many different health conditions. Some of these conditions are relatively harmless, while others are much more severe.

This article outlines the different types of coughs and lists the most common causes of acute and chronic coughs. It also provides information on how to stop a coughing attack, diagnose a cough, and when to see a doctor.

a person holding a mug of hot water that they are going to sip because that is how to stop a coughing attackShare on Pinterest
A person can try sipping hot water with honey to stop a coughing attack.

There are several methods a person can try to stop a coughing attack when one begins. These include:

  • drinking plenty of water
  • sipping hot water with honey
  • taking over-the-counter (OTC) cough medicines
  • taking a steamy shower
  • using a humidifier in the home

Many coughs occur due to dryness or irritation in the throat. The methods listed above can all help relieve dryness and irritation if present.

A cough can also be a symptom of an underlying health condition. In these instances, treating the underlying condition should stop the cough.

How to stop infants from coughing

Children and infants who have a cough should drink plenty of water. This will help soothe the throat and minimize coughing.

Placing a cool mist vaporizer or humidifier next to a child’s bed can help alleviate nighttime coughing.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not recommend giving OTC cough medicines to children under 2 years of age.

Additionally, people should not give honey to infants under 1 year of age, as it can lead to an illness called infant botulism.

Many different health conditions can cause a cough. It can be helpful to understand the different types of coughs to identify the condition.

According to the American Lung Association (ALA), healthcare practitioners classify coughs as follows:

  • Acute cough: This is a cough that comes on suddenly and lasts up to 3 weeks.
  • Subacute cough: This is a cough that comes on suddenly and lasts around 3–8 weeks.
  • Chronic cough: This is a cough that lasts longer than 8 weeks.
  • Productive cough: This is a cough that produces phlegm.
  • Dry cough: This cough does not produce phlegm.
  • Nocturnal cough: This is a cough that only occurs at night.
  • Hemoptysis: This is when a person is coughing up blood or blood-stained mucus from their lungs.

The following are some common causes of acute coughs.

COVID-19

During the current pandemic, a dry cough, which is a symptom of COVID-19, may be a concern for some people. This is the disease caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2.

The main symptoms of COVID-19 are:

Most people who contract SARS-CoV-2 will develop mild symptoms. However, some may develop severe and even life threatening symptoms. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises people to seek emergency medical treatment if they develop any of the following symptoms:

For more advice on COVID-19 prevention and treatment, visit our coronavirus hub.

Upper respiratory tract infections

An upper respiratory tract infection (URTI) is a viral or bacterial infection of one or more of the following:

  • the nose
  • the sinuses
  • the pharynx, which is the part of the throat that sits behind the mouth and nasal cavity
  • the larynx, or voicebox

Some examples of URTIs include:

A cough is a common symptom of URTIs. Other common symptoms include:

Lower respiratory tract infections

Lower respiratory tract infections (LRTIs) affect the lungs’ large airways. Some examples include bronchitis and pneumonia.

Bronchitis is an infection of the bronchi, the lungs’ main airways. The primary symptom of bronchitis is a dry or productive cough. A productive cough may produce green, yellow, or blood-tinged mucus.

Other symptoms include:

Pneumonia is an infection in one or both of the lungs. It typically causes a dry or productive cough.

Some other common symptoms of pneumonia include:

Allergic rhinitis

Allergic rhinitis, or hay fever, occurs when a person’s immune system overreacts to something in the environment.

Common environmental allergy triggers, or allergens, include:

People with allergic rhinitis may experience a dry cough due to breathing in an allergen. Some other potential symptoms of allergic rhinitis include:

Inhaling irritants

A person may develop an acute cough after breathing in certain environmental irritants. Examples include:

Inhaling irritants can cause symptoms similar to those of allergic rhinitis.

The sections below outline some of the more common causes of a chronic cough.

Asthma

Asthma is a chronic lung condition that causes inflammation and narrowing of the airways. This narrowing makes it difficult for air to move in and out of the lungs, resulting in breathing difficulties.

There is no cure for asthma, but treatments are usually effective in managing the condition. If a person does not control the condition well, however, they may experience the following symptoms:

  • coughing fits
  • wheezing
  • a tight feeling in the chest
  • shortness of breath

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) refers to a group of chronic lung conditions that obstruct airflow in and out of the lungs.

COPD can inflame and thicken the airways within the lungs, and it can damage the lung tissue responsible for exchanging gases.

Chronic coughing and shortness of breath are common symptoms of COPD. Other possible signs and symptoms of COPD include:

  • wheezing
  • excessive mucus production
  • frequent respiratory infections
  • cyanosis of the lips or fingernail beds
  • fatigue

Lung cancer

Lung cancer is the third most common cancer type in the United States. It occurs when cells divide uncontrollably in the lungs, causing tumors to grow. Tumors can cause breathing difficulties, and spread to other parts of a person’s body.

People with lung cancer may not have symptoms until the disease is at an advanced stage.

According to the CDC, a lingering cough that may gradually worsen is a possible symptom. Other potential symptoms include:

Medications

A cough can sometimes be a side effect of certain medications.

A cough is one of the most common adverse side effects of angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors (ACEIs). Doctors sometimes prescribe these to treat high blood pressure.

According to a 2012 case report, the antiepileptic drug, topiramate may also cause a dry cough, but this is rare.

To prevent a coughing fit, a person will need to identify and treat the underlying cause of the cough.

People with chronic respiratory conditions will require medical treatments to reduce the frequency and severity of coughing fits.

Those who develop coughing fits in response to certain allergens or irritants should try limiting their exposure to those substances.

Another option for people with allergies is to take antihistamines. These drugs help suppress the immune system’s response to environmental allergens, thereby preventing coughing fits.

Quitting smoking will also help prevent coughing episodes.

Coughing is a common symptom of a variety of health conditions.

According to the ALA, a person should take note of the duration, type, and features of their cough when speaking with a healthcare professional to assist with diagnosis.

A healthcare professional may ask about a person’s medical history, the nature of the cough, whether the cough gets worse or better in certain settings, and if they have any additional symptoms.

Examples of questions a doctor may ask a person include:

  • When did your cough start?
  • Does the cough produce mucus?
  • What is the color and consistency of the mucus?
  • Is there blood in the mucus?
  • Do you have allergies or cough triggers?
  • Have you been in contact with people with respiratory infections, such as the common cold, tuberculosis, pneumonia, or whooping cough?
  • Do you have any known medical illnesses?
  • Do you smoke tobacco or cannabis, vape, or use drugs?

If a person is experiencing other symptoms, such as chest pains, difficulty breathing, headaches, drowsiness, confusion, fever, and they are coughing up blood then a doctor may prescribe further tests.

Tests can include:

A person should see a doctor if their cough is severe, persistent, or worsens over time. These characteristics can indicate that a person requires medical treatment.

Parents and caregivers should also speak to a doctor if their child displays any of the following symptoms:

  • a fever of any kind in an infant under 3 months of age
  • a fever of 102°F (38.9ºC) or higher in a child of any age
  • cyanosis of the lips
  • wheezing
  • difficult or labored breathing
  • a loss of appetite or thirst
  • excessive sleepiness
  • excessive irritability
  • a cough that lasts longer than 3 weeks

Also, anyone who develops bothersome symptoms of COVID-19 should contact their doctor. If the symptoms are severe, they need immediate medical attention.

There are several steps a person can take to stop or manage a cough. These include drinking plenty of water, taking over-the-counter cough medicines, and using an indoor humidifier.

There are several health conditions that can cause a cough. Some are relatively harmless and tend to go away on their own. Others are much more severe and may require medical treatment.

A person should talk with a doctor if they develop a severe, persistent, or worsening cough. A person should also contact a doctor if they or their child develop any other concerning symptoms.

A doctor will work to identify the cause of the symptoms and prescribe appropriate treatments.