It used to be that if you had a mild cough, you didn't think twice about it. You often just waited for it to clear up or took some over-the-counter medicine to ease your discomfort. If it was more severe or was accompanied by other symptoms, you went to a doctor to find out to treat it. But now, the slightest cough may cause immediate alarm since it's a common COVID-19 symptom.
Why am I Coughing?
Although your cough could be a symptom of the novel coronavirus, there are many other causes. Defining your coughs should help ease your mind and what you should do about it once it starts.
You’ve Been Exposed to Irritants or Pollutants
You may find yourself coughing in dusty rooms or highly polluted areas, or if you breathe in strong chemicals or smoke. In many cases, it'll stop soon after you’re no longer exposed to the irritants.
You Have a Virus
A viral illness, such as a cold, the flu, or the coronavirus, may cause coughing. If you have a viral illness, you’ll probably experience a few other symptoms, such as a runny nose, sore throat, or fever.
You Have Asthma or Allergies
Allergies or asthma may trigger bouts of coughing. Asthma may also be accompanied by a tight feeling in your chest or shortness of breath. It’s not always easy to tell if you have allergies or a cold, as the symptoms can be similar.
You Have Gastroesophageal Reflux Disorder (GERD)
GERD occurs when stomach acids flow backward into your esophagus from your stomach. The acids irritate the sensitive lining of the esophagus and may cause coughing, heartburn, a bad taste in your mouth or a lump-in-the-throat sensation.
Often referred to as a smoker’s cough, this may occur as your body tries to push chemicals out of your lungs.
A Wet or Dry Cough?
Your doctor will likely ask if you have a wet or dry cough. If you have a wet cough, you may notice mucus or a salty taste in your mouth. This typically occurs if you have the flu, a cold, bronchitis, pneumonia, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Dry coughs don’t produce any mucus and can be hard to control. In fact, you may find it difficult to stop once you start. This can occur due to exposure to irritants or if you have allergies, asthma, croup, GERD, sinusitis, or COVID-19.
Still Feeling Sick?
Visit your primary care provider if your cough continues for a week, or two or you have severe symptoms.
How Do You Treat a Cough?
Over-the-counter cough medications can be helpful, as can cold and flu medications in some cases. Although medicines don’t treat the source, they reduce coughing and allow you to get more sleep and be more comfortable.
Doctors recommend humidifiers for both dry and wet coughs. The machine produces a steady flow of moist air that helps ease and congestion.
Drinking plenty of fluids helps thin out mucus and may also reduce coughing. If you have asthma, allergies, or GERD, treating your underlying condition can help.
When To See a Doctor
Get in touch with your doctor if you have a mild cough that doesn’t go away in a week or two. If it's more severe or is accompanied by any of these symptoms, call your doctor right away (even if you’ve only had it for a short time):
- Shortness of breath
- Trouble swallowing
- Green or yellow phlegm
- Inability to sleep due to constant coughing
If you have extreme difficulty breathing, trouble swallowing, chest pain, blue lips or skin, or bloody phlegm, go to the emergency room immediately or call 911.
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