Persistent Cough

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: November 2021

Coughing is a normal reaction our bodies use to clear irritants or mucus from the lungs. But sometimes coughing can be a sign of other problems. A cough that does not go away after a few weeks is called a persistent or chronic cough. Having a persistent cough is a symptom of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).1

What is a persistent cough?

It is common for people to have a short-term cough because of a cold, flu, or other respiratory infection or virus. This kind of cough goes away after a few days or weeks. A cough is called persistent if it lasts for a long period of time, such as for many weeks or months.1

A persistent cough is one of the most common symptoms of COPD. It can also be one of the first symptoms people notice as they develop the disease. Changes in a cough can also be an important sign of a COPD exacerbation or flare-up.2,3

A cough caused by COPD may be productive or non-productive. A productive cough produces mucus, which is also called sputum or phlegm. The cough pushes the mucus up through the airways and into the throat and then the mouth. This mucus can be clear, white, yellow, or green in color. If the mucus is not clear, it may be a sign of a respiratory infection.2,3

A persistent cough can impact a person's day-to-day activities and have a negative impact on quality of life. Coughing at night can make it difficult to sleep. People who have COPD and a persistent cough are more likely to develop anxiety or depression.3

What causes a persistent cough in COPD?

People with COPD usually have symptoms of 2 different conditions: chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Those 2 conditions are classified under the same name because most people have symptoms of both. Both conditions cause lung damage but impact the lungs in different ways.2

Chronic bronchitis is typically the condition that causes coughing for people with COPD. In chronic bronchitis, the airways in the lungs become inflamed and filled with mucus. This causes coughing as people try to clear mucus from the airways.2,3

Can a persistent cough be treated?

Treatment for a persistent cough depends on several factors. Some coughs can be useful and important because they clear mucus from the airways. In these cases, it can be better to not prevent the coughing.2

If the mucus is thick and difficult to cough up, you can try drinking a lot of water to thin it. Using a humidifier or taking a hot steamy shower can also temporarily loosen mucus.1,2

For some people, coughing might become painful or difficult to control. This type of cough can also cause complications like rib fractures. In this case, a doctor may recommend other treatment.1,3

A doctor may also recommend using a type of drug called a bronchodilator to treat coughing. Bronchodilators are usually given in an inhaler and can be short- or long-acting. They work by relaxing the muscles around the airways.2

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