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A cough is a natural reflex that occurs when your body senses an irritation in your throat or airway. The muscles in your chest and abdomen contract to expel air and hopefully, the irritant. While coughing can be uncomfortable, it’s your body’s natural defense against things like mucus, dust, pollen, mold, and smoke.
There are many illnesses and conditions that can cause a cough reflex. If you’re “hacking up a lung” and wondering why, it’s important to consider the characteristics of your cough. Here are a few questions you should ask yourself:
Your answers to these questions can help you and your doctor pinpoint the source of your cough. Acute coughs–those lasting less than 3 weeks–are usually associated with cold, flu, pneumonia, exposure to irritants, or whooping cough. If a cough lasts longer than 8 weeks (or 4 weeks for children), it is considered chronic. Chronic coughs are often attributed to allergies, asthma, bronchitis, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), or postnasal drip.
We recommend that any cough associated with worsening symptoms, especially in children, be evaluated after 7 days.
Seek emergency care if you or your child has a cough with symptoms of blood-tinged phlegm, chest pain, difficulty breathing, choking or vomiting.