Cough concern? 10 ways to help decode a cough

(kmiragaya/Fotolia)

(kmiragaya/Fotolia)

Joanne Richard, Special to QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:06 PM ET

If cough confusion is rattling you, join the masses.

From a lingering tickle to a hack attack, seems everyone and their mother is coughing up germs. It’s estimated that seven million Canadians will have been hit by a dreaded cold virus this winter – that’s sure a lot of virus droplets being sprayed about.

Definitely unnerving, and more so the nagging cough, the one that seems to be hanging around. Do you cough it out on your own or beeline it to the doctor? Are you dying or just experiencing a bad bout of the common cold?

Canadians are coughing up worries: According to a new study, 37% of Canadians are concerned that a cough can be a sign of something more serious than a cold, while close to the same number worry that they are spreading germs. “Of concern, about one third of Canadians would let a cough linger for a month before seeing a physician,” says highly-acclaimed respirologist Dr. Ken Chapman.

Well if you can’t stop barking, you need to find out what’s behind that hack. While coughing can be a common symptom of a cold and a natural way to clean the airways, it can also be your body’s signal of something more serious. The cough that lingers or the cough that recurs is cause for concern, says Chapman, director of the Asthma and Airway Centre of the University Health Network in Toronto.

“A cough is normal if it occurs in response to an irritant, such as strong fumes or inhaled particles, or a virus, and if it subsides quickly without returning,” says Chapman. “All of us have suffered from a cough for a few days during the winter but we should expect it to disappear in a week or so.”

Thank the Canadian winter for a dive in our respiratory health - cold-causing viruses are swirling all around us. Bitter temperatures have Canadians housebound, sharing and cavorting with nasty viruses. And allergy suffers are breathing uneasy spending increased time with dreaded pet or dust mites.

According Chapman, “the persistent or recurrent cough might mean there’s an underlying lung disease such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).” Cough can also arise for non-lung reasons, including allergies of the upper breathing passages.

Chapman adds that, at times, people are surprisingly complacent about a cough. Many smokers will dismiss their morning coughing fits and phlegm production as ‘a normal smoker’s cough’. “There is no such thing.”

While there is no cure for the common cold, frequent hand washing will reduce the risk, along with adequate sleep and good nutrition, adds Chapman, also an internationally respected researcher in the field of asthma, COPD and airway diseases.

10 things to decode your cough

  • Most coughs in healthy individuals will subside in a week or two. Longer than that, see a doctor, says Dr. Ken Chapman. “A daily cough is never normal.”

  • If the cough is accompanied by a high fever, chest tightness or breathlessness, seek medical attention. If the cough produces blood, this is never good.

  • Whatever you want to call it – mucus, snot or phlegm - sputum of any colour is abnormal, that includes green or yellow. “However, it’s not necessarily important if it’s present temporarily, such as during a respiratory tract infection, and goes away reasonably quickly.”

  • Coughing accompanied by a runny nose may mean that the cough is being triggered by postnasal drip. “Treating the nose rather than the lungs may be helpful in relieving the bothersome cough,” says Chapman.

  • Cough is the most common complaint to doctors. Most patients seek antibiotics but antibiotics won’t clear up a cold and “there is a risk for all of us that bacteria will become increasingly resistant to available antibiotics. There is growing concern in the medical community about ‘superbugs’ that no longer respond to available antibiotics,” says Chapman.

  • Some coughs don’t arise in the lungs but are triggered by nasal discharge, heartburn or medication side effects, says Chapman. Be cautious, however, about resorting to over the counter remedies to treat coughs that arise from nasal discharge. “Some of the oral decongestants can raise blood pressure.”

  • An increasingly common cause of the persistent or recurring cough is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), the damage to the lungs most typically caused by tobacco smoking, says Chapman. Even if you quit smoking, you might still have COPD, as the damage done by tobacco smoking lingers.

  • Asthma is a common cause of cough that persists or recurs, says the respirologist. The diagnosis of COPD or asthma requires a breathing measurement in a laboratory.

  • If you’ve been given an inhaler to use for your cough, make sure you know how to use the inhalation device correctly.

  • A chronic cough is a cough that lasts longer than six weeks. Many things can cause chronic cough including allergies, true asthma and reflux disease. Add to that lung cancer and tuberculosis.

Cough facts: True of false?


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