Coughing is a protective reflex that usually indicates irritation somewhere in the respiratory tract. Coughing itself is a symptom, not a disease, and it can help clear blockages in the airway.
Common respiratory tract irritations that can cause coughing include inflammation from infections, allergies and asthma, sinusitis and postnasal drip, and irritating chemicals. A common but often unrecognized cause of chronic cough is stomach acid reflux up into a part of the respiratory tract. Chronic cough also occurs with a wide range of other medical conditions that can irritate or affect the lungs or upper airway.
Treatment depends on the cause. Most coughs due to a common viral infection, such as a cold, only need home care (adequate fluids and other comfort measures). Cough suppressants are not recommended for kids.
Some infections, though, do require medical evaluation and treatment, such as bacterial infections, allergies, inhaled objects, or stomach acid reflux. Someone with a cough caused by an infection should not be around others until any fever is gone and the person is no longer considered contagious.
Coughing is usually not harmful in itself. But it can be distressing, especially when accompanied by other symptoms, and can disrupt activities and sleep. Intense or prolonged coughing may indicate a serious or ongoing problem, such as an inhaled object or other medical issue that needs prompt medical attention. Call your doctor if you have concerns.
All A to Z dictionary entries are regularly reviewed by KidsHealth medical experts.
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