Coughing Fits: Causes and How to Find Relief

Illustration of man experiencing a coughing fit.

Coughing fits can be disruptive, uncomfortable, and sometimes downright embarrassing. But did you know that they may also indicate an underlying health condition?

In this article, we’ll explore the link between coughing fits and certain lung conditions, shedding light on what you need to know to help manage your symptoms.

What Is Considered a “Coughing Fit?”

When a person experiences a coughing fit (sometimes referred to as a coughing attack), it is typically described as an intense and uncontrollable onset of coughing that can last for several minutes.

You might have experienced a coughing fit after eating food or swallowing saliva due to the substance going down your trachea (i.e., windpipe) instead of your esophagus (i.e., food pipe) where it is properly digested.¹

The scenario above is a common cause of coughing fits, but it’s not the only reason why they happen.

Types of Coughs

Coughing is a reflex that helps clear our airways of irritants, mucus, and foreign substances. Simply put, it’s a natural defense mechanism that protects the respiratory system from potential harm.²

However, when coughing becomes frequent, intense, or uncontrollable, it often results from an underlying cause.

Before we explore a few causes of coughing fits, let’s first review the different types of coughs and what they mean:

  • Dry cough: characterized by a persistent tickle or irritation in the throat that triggers your cough reflex but produces no mucus or phlegm.³
  • Wet cough: occurs when the body produces mucus or phlegm that is then coughed up. This type of cough is often associated with a respiratory infection or chronic lung condition.4
  • Acute cough: a sudden onset of coughing that typically lasts no more than three weeks. Various factors, such as the common cold, allergies, or the flu, may trigger it.5
  • Chronic cough: a persistent cough that lasts for more than eight weeks.6 Accompanying symptoms may include coughing up mucus, wheezing, and shortness of breath.
  • Paroxysmal coughing: a violent, uncontrolled cough that may cause you to feel a choking sensation or even trigger your gagging reflex, leading to vomiting. Conditions that may cause a person to cough so forcefully and uncontrollably, include pneumonia, bronchitis, and bronchiectasis, among others.7

Experiencing uncontrollable coughing, whether it’s a persistent dry cough or a cough that produces phlegm, can be disruptive or alarming. Therefore, it’s important to recognize that a frequent cough accompanied by other symptoms (e.g., infection, shortness of breath, vomiting) often indicate something more serious.8

What Causes a Coughing Fit?

Coughing fits can be caused by a wide range of acute and chronic factors. Let’s now delve into a few of the culprits.


In many cases, acute coughing fits are a result of upper and lower respiratory infections, including:

  • Common cold
  • Influenza
  • Pneumonia9

These infections can irritate the airways, leading to excessive coughing as the body tries to expel the infectious agents.


Allergies are another common cause of acute coughing fits. When the immune system overreacts to allergens such as pollen, dust mites, or pet dander, it can trigger an inflammatory response in the airways, resulting in a dry cough or coughing fit.10


Asthma is a chronic lung condition characterized by inflammation and narrowing of the airways, leading to wheezing, shortness of breath, and chronic coughing.

People with asthma may experience an asthma attack, triggered by various factors, including allergens, exercise, cold air, or respiratory infections.11 Therefore, it’s important to work closely with your healthcare provider to develop a personalized treatment plan to manage symptoms effectively.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Chronic coughing can be a common symptom of COPD. When the airways become inflamed and damaged, mucus production increases, leading to coughing.

Additionally, the airways may become narrowed, making it more difficult for air to flow in and out of the lungs, resulting in a chronic cough.


Bronchiectasis, another chronic lung condition, causes the airways in the lungs to become damaged and widened. This can lead to a buildup of mucus and bacteria, causing infections.

As with COPD, persistent coughing is a common symptom of bronchiectasis, especially when mucus is present. Coughing fits can be severe and may last for several minutes.

Other symptoms of bronchiectasis include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Wheezing

How To Stop a Coughing Fit

Unopened water bottle.With a little patience and some self-care,12 you may be able to reduce the onset of coughing fits so it doesn’t disrupt your day.

Stay hydrated: Drinking plenty of water can help thin mucus and reduce the frequency and severity of coughing fits.

Use a humidifier: Adding moisture to the air can help soothe irritated airways and reduce coughing fits, especially in dry environments.

Avoid irritants: Minimize exposure to smoke, dust, strong odors, and other irritants that can trigger or worsen coughing fits.

Woman washing hands with soap to prevent virus and bacteria. Practice good hand hygiene: Regularly washing your hands and avoiding close contact with individuals who have a respiratory infection can help reduce the risk of developing coughing fits.

Practice proper cough etiquette: When coughing, cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your elbow to prevent the spread of germs and irritants.

Follow your treatment plan: If you have a diagnosed underlying health condition that causes coughing fits, it’s important to follow your prescribed treatment plan consistently.

This may include taking medications as directed, making necessary lifestyle modifications, or performing regular airway clearance therapy.

When to See Your Doctor

While occasional coughing fits may not be cause for concern, a healthcare professional must evaluate persistent or recurrent coughing fits. You should seek medical attention if your coughing fits are accompanied by other concerning symptoms, such as:

  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Coughing up blood
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Persistent fever

With the right treatment plan and lifestyle modifications, you can effectively manage and reduce the frequency and severity of coughing fits, allowing you to breathe easier and enjoy a better quality of life.

So, if you’ve been struggling with persistent coughing fits, don’t ignore them—seek medical attention and take proactive steps towards finding relief.

Fighting Coughing Fits with Airway Clearance

If your cough results from a chronic lung condition, airway clearance techniques via high-frequency chest wall oscillation (HFCWO) therapy can help manage symptoms.

By helping to clear mucus buildup and other secretions from the lungs, HFCWO therapy can help reduce coughing fits and improve overall lung function.

The SmartVest System

The SmartVest Airway Clearance System is an HFCWO therapy device that delivers 360° chest coverage to help break the mucus buildup, inflammation, and infection cycle.

SmartVest is comfortable,13 easy to use, and has changed the lives of many people suffering from bronchiectasis and other chronic lung conditions.

To learn more about SmartVest, request an informational packet today or call our Respiratory Therapists at 1.855.528.5690 to discuss your symptoms.


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[2] American Lung Association. “Learn about Cough.” Retrieved from

[3] Medical News Today. “What causes a tickle in the throat and how to get rid of it. ” Retrieved from

[4] Medical News Today. “Wet coughs: What to know.” Retrieved from

[5] Mayo Clinic. “Cough: Causes.” Retrieved from

[6] Cleveland Clinic. “Chronic Cough.” Retrieved from

[7] Medical News Today. “Why might you cough so hard that you vomit?” Retrieved from

[8] American Lung Institute. “Learn about cough” Retrieved from

[9] Medical News Today. “How Can I Stop a Coughing Attack?” Retrieved from

[10] American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. ” Cough.” Retrieved from

[11] Cleveland Clinic. “Asthma.” Retrieved from

[12] Medical News Today. “How Can I Stop a Coughing Attack?” Retrieved from

[13] Pokorney J. Comparison of Oscillatory Trough Pressure Generated by High Frequency Chest Wall Oscillation (HFCWO) Systems: A White Paper.