Persistent Cough

Having a persistent cough is a symptom of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). People with COPD have difficulty breathing that is caused by conditions called chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

People often have a short-term cough because of a cold, flu, or other respiratory infection or virus. This kind of cough goes away completely 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.

When does a persistent cough occur?

During the early stages of COPD, a person may cough more often in the early morning. During the later stages of the disease, the coughing may happen throughout the entire day. People with COPD may also cough during the night, which can keep them from sleeping well.

Coughing caused by COPD is often productive. This means that the 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 mouth. For this reason, many people with COPD need to “clear their throats” often, especially in the morning. This mucus can be clear or white, yellow, or green in color. But if the mucus is not clear, it may be a sign of a respiratory infection. 1,2,3

What causes a persistent cough in COPD?

Coughing is a natural function of the body that plays an important role in the breathing system. It helps move extra mucus out of the lungs through the airways. Coughing is also a reaction that helps to remove any kind of irritants that a person might inhale into the lungs. People who are smokers may also have a persistent cough, but it is not always a symptom of COPD.

People with COPD often have a persistent cough because they have chronic bronchitis, which means that their airways are constantly irritated. The irritation is commonly caused by smoking, but it can also be caused by other types of irritants, such as pollution.

The irritation in the airways causes two problems that prevent enough air from passing through to the lungs:

  • The lining of the airways becomes swollen
  • Too much mucus is produced by the lungs

People with chronic bronchitis can have a persistent cough because they have to regularly clear their swollen airways of this excess mucus. 2,4

Is having a persistent cough a common symptom of COPD?

Persistent coughing is very common for people with COPD. One reason is that it is a main symptom of chronic bronchitis. People are diagnosed with chronic bronchitis if they have a persistent cough that lasts for at least three months during two years in a row. Many people with COPD have at least some symptoms of coughing due to chronic bronchitis.3

Can a persistent cough be treated?

Whether or not a cough should be treated with medication or other remedies depends on the type of cough. Patients should consult with their healthcare providers to figure out the best way to deal with their coughing.

Some coughs serve a useful and important purpose of clearing mucus from the airways. In those cases, it can be better not to prevent the coughing.

If the cough is due to mucus that is very thick, then drinking more fluids can help to make it thinner and easier to clear. If this does not work well enough, then there are medicines called “expectorants” that can help make the mucus easier to cough up.

Sometimes the coughing might become painful or difficult to control. In those cases, healthcare providers might recommend cough “suppressants” that keep the body from coughing. These suppressants might also be used for coughs that do not produce mucus.

For people with COPD, coughing can also cause what is called a “bronchospasm” or “spasm.” This happens when the muscles around the airways suddenly tighten up. This narrows the airways and makes it hard to breathe. To help with coughing that causes spasms, healthcare providers might prescribe special types of inhaled medications called “bronchodilators” or inhaled steroids.2

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Written by: Anna Nicholson | Last reviewed: July 2015.