What is a chronic cough, and how is it treated?

Written by: Dr Amit Patel
Edited by: Jay Staniland


A chronic cough is generally classified as a cough that lasts for more than 8 weeks. Most coughs will clear up within 2-3 weeks, any cough that lasts more than a few weeks should be discussed with a doctor in respiratory medicine. A chronic cough can be irritating, can leave you feeling tired from interrupted sleep, and can even cause vomiting and light-headedness in some cases.



How is chronic cough diagnosed?


A chronic cough is diagnosed by a respiratory physician, generally as a cough lasting 8 weeks or more. The diagnosis is made depending on the patients’ symptoms, medical history and description of the cough. Investigations may involve blood tests, blood function tests, and a CT scan if needed. The necessary investigations are determined based on individual patient need.


What are the causes of chronic cough?


It is normal for most people to have 1 or 2 periods of regular coughing during the year, but these usually clear up quickly.

The most common causes of a chronic cough are:


  • Post infection: after an infection of the chest it’s common to suffer from a persistent cough for some time. The airways can become quite irritated leading to a prolonged cough. The coughing itself can further irritate the airways with a vicious cycle developing.
  • Asthma: patients with asthma are more likely to suffer from an asthma-related cough, and one that can, in some cases, come and go with the seasons. Cough can be a sign of worsening asthma control and should lead to further review with the doctor.
  • Upper Airway Cough Syndrome: This is a condition where mucus drips down from your upper airways causing irritation leading to a persistent cough. This condition is called Upper Airway Cough Syndrome (UACS).
  • Gastroeosophageal Reflux Disease (GERD): This is a common condition where stomach acid can reflux up the oesophagus towards the throat. This can cause irritation leading to a chronic cough.

A proportion of cases are from rarer conditions, such as bronchiectasis, lung fibrosis, sleep apnoea and many more. In rare cases, chronic cough can be caused by lung cancer. It’s always important to get your persistent cough checked out by a doctor.


How is chronic cough treated?


The treatment of chronic cough will depend on the cause.


  • Asthma – the use of inhalers and a comprehensive asthma management plan will reduce and hopefully stop the cough.
  • Gastroeosophageal reflux – tablets are often prescribed to try to help to reduce this condition.
  • Upper airway cough syndrome – a nasal steroid treatment is provided, alongside specific treatment tailored to the patients’ needs and the severity of the condition. An ENT opinion may be sought.


How common is a constant cough?


A cough is the most common cause for patients attending their GP surgery, and most individuals will have a cough at some point during the year. Only a small proportion of these are classified as a chronic cough.

By Dr Amit Patel
Pulmonology & respiratory medicine

Dr Amit Patel is a leading London Consultant Respiratory physician specialising in the investigation and management of all respiratory diseases including acute and chronic cough, asthma, breathlessness of unknown cause, COPD, lung cancer, respiratory failure, sleep apnoea, sarcoidosis, interstitial lung disease and bronchiectasis, and is the clinical lead for respiratory medicine at King's College Hospital, London.

He has a number of private clinics in London, alongside his NHS work at King's College Hospital and Guys and St Thomas's Hospital. During Dr Patel's higher specialist training he obtained an MD in the Division of Asthma, Allergy, and Lung Biology within King’s College London.

Dr Amit Patel holds a postgraduate teaching qualification and is actively involved in undergraduate and postgraduate teaching and teaches all aspects of respiratory medicine. He has been involved in a number of research projects and his work has been published in a number of high impact factor international journals, and presented at major symposia in North America, Europe and the UK.

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