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A cough – An incessant tick or our body’s natural function? A cough is, in fact, a vital player in our body’s defence against disease. The act of coughing is done deliberately or as part of a reflex mechanism by which your abdomen and chest contract to expel a burst of air. Why does this happen? Coughing helps expel mucus, microbes and foreign particles from the respiratory tract, protecting the lungs from infection and inflammation. It is a way the body expels irritants.

Coughing can be a voluntary or involuntary action. If the case is the latter the cough is triggered by infections, allergies, colds, flu, smoking, dust particles or by normal bodily fluids such as nasal mucus.

Different Types of Coughs

Coughs can be broadly subdivided into productive and non-productive coughs.

Productive coughs produce mucus or phlegm that comes up from the lungs or drain down the back of the throat. Coughs that produce mucus are clearing mucus from the lungs and shouldn’t be suppressed.

A non-productive cough is also known as a ‘dry cough’ since it does not bring up any mucus or secretion. This type of cough has a tickling sensation at the back of the throat.

Productive and non productive cough

What Triggers Coughs?

It is best to understand that a cough isn’t a disease but rather a symptom of an underlying medical condition which can be classified as mild or severe cases.

  1. mild cases which normally only affect the upper respiratory tract, for example, the common cold.
  2. more severe cases such as pneumonia which are a result of lower respiratory tract infections.

Everyone coughs and nobody worries about an occasional cough. Many acute illnesses, such as hay fever, common cold, bronchitis and pneumonia produce recurrent coughs that are resolved in a matter of days/weeks.

Types of short-term/acute coughs are:

  • URTI – Upper Respiratory Tract Infections which affect the throat, windpipe and sinuses. Examples are cold, flu, laryngitis, sinusitis, etc.
  • LRTI – Lower Respiratory Tract Infection that affects your lungs. Examples are acute bronchitis and pneumonia.
  • Allergies – such as hay fever
  • Asthma flare-ups
  • Dust or Smoke

On the other hand, chronic coughs linger for 3 to 8 weeks. Chronic coughing should be brought to the attention of your physician especially when the cough is persistent.

Chronic coughs are triggered by:

  • A long-term respiratory tract infection, such as chronic bronchitis
  • Asthma – which may lead to other symptoms, such as wheezing, chest tightness and shortness of breath.
  • Severe allergies
  • Smoking
  • Certain medications such as ACE Inhibitors, which are used to treat high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.

To determine whether a cough is dry or chesty your doctor will most likely ask you if you are producing darker than usual phlegm. The varying colours in the phlegm that you produce is a good indication of the type of treatment and medication your doctor will prescribe. There are various treatments for treating productive and non-productive coughs, which will be discussed in the following article…stay tuned.

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