Centers of Excellence

The Lung Center

What is a cough?

A cough is a sudden and often repetitive reflex that allows the body to clear the throat or lung airways. While an occasional cough is normal, a cough that persists for weeks or brings up bloody or discolored mucus may be a symptom of a medical condition. Even if there is no underlying disease, a cough can be debilitating – disrupting sleep and triggering additional physical and emotional problems.

One of the top reasons for visits to a primary care physician, a cough can be acute (lasting less than three weeks), such as one that accompanies a cold or flu, or chronic (lasting longer than three weeks). Causes of a cough are wide and varied, ranging from environmental irritants to medication to lung disease. A persistent or worrisome cough requires the attention of lung health specialists.

Physicians and surgeons who provide cough services at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) Lung Center provide comprehensive care for patients experiencing a cough. Their expertise and collaboration with other specialists throughout BWH provide patients with a highly informed diagnosis and a cohesive treatment plan.

What are the risk factors for a cough?

Factors contributing to an increased risk for chronic cough include:

  • Air pollution
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Environmental or occupational exposures
  • Smoking or frequent exposure to secondhand smoke
  • Women tend to have more sensitive cough reflexes than men

What causes a cough?

A cough can be either a normal physiological reflex or due to an underlying condition. For a persistent cough, it is important that you consult your primary care physician. Some causes of chronic cough are:

How is a cough diagnosed?

Your physician will review your medical history and perform a physical exam to determine the cause of your cough. He or she may also order additional tests, including:

How do you treat a cough?

Our specialists will provide you with a tailored treatment plan for your cough based on its cause and your medical history. If your doctor determines that your cough is a result of environmental, psychological or lifestyle factors, he or she may recommend that you:

  • Quit smoking
  • Keep hydrated, as fluids may soothe an irritated throat
  • Use a humidifier to add moisture to the air
  • Avoid exposure to irritants, such as smoke, dust, or other pollutants
  • Work with a speech pathologist to reduce cough frequency through behavioral management strategies

Should your cough require medical treatment, your physician may prescribe:

  • Antibiotics to treat a chronic cough caused by a bacterial infection
  • Antihistamines and decongestants to treat allergies and postnasal drip
  • Antitussives, prescription cough suppressants that are typically used only when nothing else works
  • Acid blockers to block acid production in patients suffering from acid reflux
  • Expectorants, medication that may loosen mucus to make it easier to cough up
  • Glucocorticoids and bronchodilators, medications that relax your airway when your cough is asthma-related.

If your cough is a side effect of a medication you are currently taking, your doctor may prescribe a different medicine.

What can you expect for cough care?

A multidisciplinary team will work with you every step of the way, from diagnosis through evaluation, to create a cohesive and comprehensive treatment plan. Our unique approach features same day consultations with multiple specialists and fosters seamless, expert care. Your medical condition will be closely monitored and managed to promote optimal lung functioning and an improved quality of life.

If you require surgery for an underlying condition causing your cough, you will meet with your health care team first for pre-operative information and tests. On the day of your surgery, you will receive care from surgeons, anesthesiologists and nurses who specialize in thoracic surgery and interventional pulmonary procedures. After surgery, you will recover in our designated thoracic post-surgical care unit where you will receive comprehensive care by an experienced surgical and nursing staff.

Who treats cough patients?

Chronic cough patients benefit from the wide range of specialists at The Lung Center, including thoracic surgeons, oncologists, pulmonologists and clinicians from the Voice Program. This collaboration ensures comprehensive diagnosis and targeted treatment for patients.

Any recommended surgery or procedure will be performed by an experienced, board-certified surgeon, in collaboration with the treatment team including nurses and physician assistants, all of whom specialize in taking care of patients with name of the disease or condition.

How do I book an appointment or find directions?

What other resources can I find on coughs?

Learn more about cough in our health library.

Visit the Kessler Health Education Library in the Bretholtz Center for Patients and Families to access computers and knowledgeable staff.

Access a complete directory of patient and family services.

Learn more about Brigham and Women's Hospital

For over a century, a leader in patient care, medical education and research, with expertise in virtually every specialty of medicine and surgery.

About BWH