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When to Worry about a Cough

Jan 10, 2011 07:55PM ● Published by Anonymous

For most people, chronic coughing raises the specter of cancer. But is cancer really a common cause of a cough that lingers? And if it’s not, what is? A recent issue of Harvard Men’s Health Watch discussed potential causes of this irritating problem.

Coughing is actually a vital player in the body’s defense against disease. Coughing pushes out mucus, microbes, and foreign particles from the respiratory tract, protecting the lungs from infection and inflammation. In addition, cough-triggering nerves in the respiratory tract can be irritated by infections, allergies, cold air, tumors, smoke, dust, or normal bodily fluids. It’s no wonder, then, that so many different things can trigger a cough.

No one worries about the occasional cough. And most people are aware that many illnesses—ranging from hay fever and the common cold to bronchitis and pneumonia—cause recurrent coughs that usually fade away in a matter of a few days to a few weeks. In contrast, a chronic cough is defined as one that lingers longer, sometimes lasting for months or even years.

Dozens of conditions can cause a recurrent, lingering cough, but in nonsmokers, the lion’s share are caused by just five: postnasal drip, asthma, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), chronic bronchitis, and treatment with an ACE inhibitor, used for high blood pressure or heart failure.

Don't ignore a chronic cough, notes Harvard Men’s Health Watch, but also don’t panic just because you have been coughing for more than three or four weeks. The cause can usually be found without elaborate tests, and the problem can often be corrected with simple treatments. But if you are a smoker with a lingering cough, or if your cough brings up blood or a lot of sputum, or is accompanied by symptoms such as fever, weight loss, or night sweats, consult your doctor without delay.


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