8 reasons behind your cough

8 reasons behind your cough

Understanding that cough


8 reasons behind that persistent irritation.

With the change of season and winter approaching, it won’t be long before families and homes start stocking up on immune boosters, cold and flu medication and antibacterial hand sanitiser in the hope of preventing this year’s viruses and other nasties from circulating. One of the most common gripes at this time of year is an ongoing and relentless cough, which most patients attempt to treat at home with over-the-counter medication. While it can be
particularly disruptive, worsening at night to disturb sleep or causing aches and pains in the chest and ribs, a cough is your lungs’ way of dealing with and expelling an irritant. But why exactly are you coughing and are there any underlying concerns you should be looking out for? We break down the eight reasons for coughs and let you know when it might be time to see a doctor.

A cough is considered acute if it lasts less than three weeks and chronic if it lasts longer than eight weeks, or four weeks in children.

Wet vs Dry

Wet, phlegmy coughs are brought on by your body’s production of too much mucus. A wet and chesty-sounding
cough is known as a productive cough because it uses mucus to clear the airways. This sort of cough usually follows a persistent cold or flu virus, which can develop into a more serious condition such as bronchitis or pneumonia.

A non-productive cough, or a dry, tickly cough, is one where no mucus is produced and is usually the result of an irritant that causes the cough reflex in your chest. An irritant can be anything from an allergy to postnasal drip, which causes inflammation in the respiratory system.

The different types of coughs

What’s making you cough?

1 Colds and flu 

Because the common cold and flu are caused by a virus, you can’t treat the illness with antibiotics. You have to wait it out and take medication to help ease the symptoms if they’re causing any discomfort. This type of cough usually goes on its own or within a week to 10 days.

2 Post-nasal drip 

One of the most common causes for that niggling cough, a post-nasal drip causes mucus to run down the back of your throat, irritating your air tract and causing a cough reflex to get the mucus out of your system. Depending on the severity of the post-nasal drip, it can be a dry, tickling cough or a wet-sounding cough, accompanied by a sore throat. Coughs related to rhinitis, sinusitis and post-nasal drip are commonly caused by allergies – whether seasonal or brought on by a factor in the environment, such as smoke or a change in air temperature.

3 Asthma 

While the cause of asthma is unknown, it affects the airways, causing them to narrow and swell, making breathing difficult and triggering a cough-like spasm with shortness of breath. While it can be diagnosed from a young age,
many people develop it later on in life or find that it’s only triggered when doing a particular activity, such as exercise. It can be mild or very severe, affecting daily life for many who live in fear of an asthma attack. Asthmatics are always
advised to carry an asthma pump, which helps open blocked airways.

4 Reflux 

You might not think a build-up of acid or acid-reflux in your stomach could bring on a cough, but one of the only
symptoms you may experience is in fact a cough, and not heartburn as expected. GERD, gastroesophageal reflux disease, is caused by stomach acid flowing up into the oesophagus, causing the oesophageal lining to become irritated, leading to a cough reflex.

5 Pneumonia 

Often a secondary infection that causes the air sacs in the lungs (one or both lungs) to become inflamed and swollen
and to fill with fluid, which can develop into a pus-like substance. Pneumonia is usually accompanied by a phlegmy, wet cough, fever and difficulty breathing.

6 Medications 

Did you know the medication you’re on can contribute to that cough? Certain prescription medications, especially ACE inhibitors used for high blood pressure, can trigger coughing. Research shows this type of medication can cause a cough in up to a third of patients and it can either be immediate or develop months after the medication has started.
Ironically, some asthma medications, such as inhaled corticosteroids, can also cause coughing as a side effect. If you suspect your medication is responsible for your cough, talk to your healthcare provider.

7 Whooping cough 

While the majority of people are vaccinated against this, whooping cough, or pertussis, and its appearance as a common cold, still frequently do the rounds over the winter period. It’s caused by a bacterial infection, is highly contagious and leaves the patient with a dry, hacking cough that has a ‘whoop’ on the end as air is taken into
the lungs. Because larger groups of people are choosing not to vaccinate their children, what was once a less common contagious respiratory tract infection is becoming more prevalent. It causes thick mucus to accumulate in your airways, leading to uncontrollable coughing attacks. Although it’s often diagnosed by the unmistakable ‘whoop’, many adults and adolescents don’t develop this sound and a test should be conducted to determine whether your
prolonged cough is in fact whooping cough.

8 Tuberculosis 

In South Africa the infection rate of TB is high. A potentially serious respiratory infection that mainly affects your lungs, it can be recognised by ongoing fits of coughing. Consult your doctor to rule it out if your cough has lasted more than a month, you’re coughing up blood or you experience chest pain when you cough. While it is treatable, TB can also affect other parts of the body such as the spine and various organs.

What’s making your kid cough?


Children are especially prone to developing a nasty cough after a viral or bacterial infection. These are the ones to watch out for:

  • The bark. This is an infection of the upper airways, which obstructs breathing, causing a characteristic barking cough. The main culprit is often croup, a common childhood illness. The cough leads to swelling around the larynx and windpipe so that when the air is forced through the airways’ narrowed passages, it produces a barking sound. Croup is often worse in the evenings.
  • The whoop. As with adults, the tell-tale ‘whoop’ of whooping cough is easier to spot in children, who are more affected by it.
  • The wheeze. Wheezing when breathing is a sign your child is struggling to take in air, most likely caused by infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia.

Warning signs

It’s quite common for a cough to linger after a cold or flu has struck as the upper airways remain inflamed and raw, but be aware of warning signs that your cough might be turning into something a bit more concerning than just an after effect. The following are signs that what started as viral might have turned into a bacterial infection – such as bronchitis or pneumonia – and may need antibiotics:

  • phlegm changes colour, resulting in thick yellow or green mucus, or becomes tinged with blood
  • wheezing in the chest
  • fever and chills
  • struggling to breathe or shortness of breath.


The advice contained here is strictly for informational purposes. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, and treatment. Always consult your GP or a doctor for specific information regarding your health.

Joni van der Merwe

About Joni van der Merwe

Your Family’s Digital editor. Avid retweeter. When I’m not scrolling Instagram you’ll find me in my garden. Keen on DIY and I don’t believe there’s anything that can’t be fixed with some chalk paint.


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