How to Stop ‘Mystery’ Coughs That Won’t Quit

4 possible culprits for long-term coughing

How to Stop ‘Mystery’ Coughs That Won't Quit

Sometimes a cough is like an unwelcome houseguest, sticking around way too long and making you miserable along the way.

Advertising Policy

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

A persistent cough with no clear cause is termed by some as “mystery cough,” but it’s more accurately called chronic or idiopathic cough, says pulmonologist Sumita Khatri, MD.

“About 10 to 20 percent of the population has at some point had a cough that lingers more than eight weeks, which is the definition of chronic cough,” says Dr. Khatri. “It can be debilitating and very frustrating for people.”

When a cough persists for more than three weeks, it’s time to see a doctor. When solving coughing mysteries, Dr. Khatri looks at an assortment of intertwined possible causes that take some detective work to sort through. Here are four of the most common culprits.

1. Asthma

“My patient may say, ‘But I don’t have shortness of breath!’” says Dr. Khatri. “But many people don’t know that cough is the most frequent manifestation of asthma.” For example, a cold may cause a flare-up of asthma, leading to a cough that sticks around long after the cold goes away.

Advertising Policy

RELATED: Asthma Treatment Guide

2. Upper airway (nose and throat) problems

A stuffy nose, itchy eyes and postnasal drainage can all cause a persistent cough, she says. Try over-the-counter antihistamines or nasal sprays, use a humidifier, and shower before bed to remove potential allergens and prevent sleep-disrupting cough.

3. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)

Heartburn and reflux are most commonly associated with GERD, but one study found that up to 75 percent of patients with GERD-induced cough don’t experience typical heartburn or reflux symptoms. Avoid eating within three to four hours of bedtime. Also, watch out for reflux-inducing foods like caffeine, mint, chocolate and alcohol.

RELATED: How to Care for Your Child’s Croupy Cough

Advertising Policy

4. True idiopathic cough

Many people with a chronic cough fall into the category of “idiopathic cough,” meaning that no cause can be found.

Cough can be like a vicious cycle, says Dr. Khatri. “The act of coughing is traumatic to the vocal cords, which makes the cough come back even more.” Medications can be used to ease a sensitive cough reflex. Also, behavioral therapy can help break a habitual cough.

“When it comes to chronic coughing, don’t lose hope,” Dr. Khatri says. “It may take some time, but most people determine the cause and find relief.”

RELATED: Cold Can Spell Trouble for Your Heart, Lungs

Advertising Policy