Is My Cough Chronic or Acute?

Older man coughing into hand.

Did you know that when we cough, our bodies are working hard to protect our lungs and airways? 

Though most of us would rather avoid coughing entirely—especially during a presentation, a yoga class, or at night when we’re trying to fall asleep—it’s important to remember that coughing is a natural reflex. In fact, we depend on this response mechanism to help clear mucus, germs, or dust particles that enter into our lungs and cause irritation [1].

Types of Cough & What They Mean

Though a necessary (and effective) bodily function, coughing can quickly become more than a common nuisance. When a cough is paired with other symptoms, such as chest pain, wheezing, phlegm production, or when it lasts longer than what is considered “normal,” it can impact our quality of life.

You might feel embarrassed, frustrated, or even experience physical discomfort from a frequent cough.

And when coughing is no longer effective—meaning it fails to help us clear mucus and fight the onset of infection—it may be a sign of another underlying issue.

In this article, we’ll discuss the differences between chronic vs. acute coughs, how they develop, and when it might be time to speak with your clinician about airway clearance treatment. 

What Is a Chronic Cough?

A chronic cough is a persistent cough that lasts longer than 8 weeks [2].

“It’s important to keep in mind that a chronic cough lasts eight weeks or longer because this threshold makes it less likely that the cough is caused by a respiratory infection or common cold […] Often a chronic cough is a symptom of another disease, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma or pulmonary fibrosis,” [3].

What Is an Acute Cough?

An acute cough typically lasts no more than 3 weeks. These types of coughs are considered the most common and may be a symptom of a cold, pneumonia, or the flu [4].

Though an acute cough is considered less serious [5] than a chronic cough, it’s important to monitor any accompanying symptoms, such developing a dry, non-productive cough, as this may lead to mucus buildup and a respiratory infection [6]. 

Causes of a Chronic Cough

Growing up, you may have heard the medical term “chronic cough” referred to as a “smoker’s cough.” This phrase was used to describe individuals who developed a persistent cough that lasted longer than 3 weeks. These individuals would experience a chronic cough, as a result of their bodies trying to clear the lungs of irritants and chemicals after inhaling cigarette smoke [7].

But chronic cough is not limited to individuals who smoke or vape. In fact, chronic cough is also linked to underlying conditions, such as allergies or upper respiratory infections that produce excess mucus. 

For example, when a large amount of mucus drains down to the back of your throat, it can irritate the lungs and airways [8]. This condition is known as post-nasal drip and is described as a constant tickle in the throat that causes coughing [9].

For many, a post-nasal drip may cause them to experience a persistent cough, but, as noted earlier, there may be a more serious underlying issue. 

Chronic Coughs & Lung Conditions

Certain chronic lung conditions, such as COPD, asthma, and bronchiectasis all share symptoms of a chronic cough.

Each condition may also cause wheezing, shortness of breath, and mucus buildup—all of which are the results of restricted or blocked airways, which can then trigger your coughing reflex.

It’s also not uncommon for individuals living with COPD, or bronchiectasis, to experience flair ups (i.e., a worsening of symptoms). This can cause your coughing to worsen over time, resulting in hospitalization.

When to See Your Clinician

If your cough lasts longer than 8 weeks, it’s important to meet with your clinician to help you diagnose what is causing this symptom. Be sure to inform your healthcare team of any accompanying symptoms you’re experiencing, as well, such as wheezing, shortness of breath, fatigue, or chest pain. 

Graphic icons of bronchiectasis symptoms

How Can Airway Clearance Help?

Because coughing is a natural reflex that helps your lungs propel irritants upward and outwards, while breaking up mucus buildup, it helps prevent your airways from becoming blocked or constricted.

However, if you’re living with a chronic condition, such as COPD or bronchiectasis, your lungs may find it more difficult to mobilize and clear airways independently. 

SmartVest user talking to friend while performing HFCWO therapy at home.

Airway clearance works to clear mucus buildup and reduce the onset of symptoms that may include inflammation and infection. 

The SmartVest Airway Clearance System works to deliver repeated pulses of air that gently squeeze and release the upper chest wall to loosen and thin mucus. Using high frequency chest wall oscillation (HFCWO) therapy, our respiratory vest helps to propel mucus upward so it can be coughed out more easily, helping to reduce the onset of chronic symptoms. 

Click here to request a patient packetExperience Airway Clearance Today

If you’d like to learn more about the benefits of HFCWO therapy or discover how SmartVest can help you get back to living independently of your symptoms, you can request an information packet that will be delivered right to your door!

In the meantime, you can also schedule a time to speak with one of our patient care advocates, who are also Respiratory Therapists, to ask questions, find resources, and start the process of getting airway clearance! If you’d like to chat with them right away, call 1.855.528.5690

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Resources:

[1] American Lung Association. “Learn about Cough.” Retrieved from https://www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/warning-signs-of-lung-disease/cough/learn-about-cough

[2] Cleveland Clinic. “Chronic Cough.” Retrieved from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/15048-chronic-cough-overview

[3] American Lung Association. “Chronic Cough Symptoms and Diagnosis.” Retrieved from https://www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/chronic-cough/symptoms-diagnosis

[4] Mayo Clinic. “Cough: Causes.” Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/cough/basics/causes/sym-20050846

[5]  American Lung Association. “Learn about Cough.” Retrieved from https://www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/warning-signs-of-lung-disease/cough/learn-about-cough

[6] Medical News Today. “What to Know About a Cough with Mucus.” Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/cough-with-mucus

[7] Cleveland Clinic. “Chronic Cough.” Retrieved from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/15048-chronic-cough-overview

[8] Cleveland Clinic. “Chronic Cough.” Retrieved from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/15048-chronic-cough-overview

[9] Medical News Today. “What causes a tickle in the throat and how to get rid of it. ” Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/319802

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