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Last updated May 28, 2017, originally published August 24, 2016
By L. Carr, Contributing Columnist
It’s a life-limiting condition: what starts as a simple throat tickle turns
into a full-blown, productivity-sapping, irritating cough. A persistent
cough stops you sleeping, depletes your energy, causes throat and
chest pain and even fainting, and makes you panic. When you cough
for a few days you assume you’ve got a cold. A few weeks and your
mind turns to allergies or bronchitis. A few months and you start to
worry about lung cancer and other serious diseases.
What causes a persistent cough? The cough itself is not a disease;
rather it is the symptom of something else going on in your body. Find
the cause and you can get rid of the cough – but it is not always simple.
Why can’t you stop coughing? Is it likely your lingering cough is caused
by lung cancer? If not, what is the cause, and what can you do to calm
How You End Up Coughing
A cough is actually a helpful, protective mechanism provoked by the
lungs when something is irritating them, like mucus or fluid or some
form of irritant. It is a vital link in the chain of the body’s defense
against disease – coughing gets rid of microbes and mucus, and expels
When you cough you start with a gasp of air pulled into the lungs. The
glottis pulls shut, closing off the windpipe. The muscles in the chest
contract and because the glottis is closed pressure builds up in the air
passages. When the glottis opens the air rushes out.
When you cough vigorously the air comes out at the speed of sound,
producing a barking or whooping noise.
A cough can be voluntary but when you’ve been coughing for some
time, it is normally involuntary.
When you can’t stop coughing, the nerves in the respiratory tract and
larynx initiate the coughing process, triggered by an infection, allergy,
chemical, foreign body, mucus, or stomach acid.
What Causes a Persistent Cough?
No one pays much attention to an occasional cough that lasts a few
hours or days. But a chronic cough – one that lingers more than eight
weeks – is a different matter.
Chronic coughing is so common it is one of the leading reasons people
see a doctor, according to Harvard Medical School.
Smoking is the leading reason why people can’t stop coughing, says a
2015 report from Harvard Medical School.
If you smoke, sooner or later you will develop a chronic cough from
But what if you don’t smoke? Fortunately, the cause of a lingering
cough is usually benign. You may not be able to stop coughing because
you are suffering from postnasal drip, bronchitis, gastroesophageal
reflux disease (GERD), asthma, or you are being treated with ACE
inhibitors for high blood pressure.
Your cough may be triggered by allergies or airborne irritants. In some
serious cases, coughing can be a sign of a neurological condition like
Parkinson’s disease, heart failure or lung cancer.
Can’t Stop Coughing? When to Call a Doctor
A chronic cough is not usually serious but if you also get some of the
following symptoms, get in touch with a doctor for advice. Warning
symptoms include prolonged high fever, coughing up blood, shortness
of breath, weight loss, weakness and fatigue, chest pain, night sweats
What could be causing you to cough so much and for so long? We
looked at the possible reasons, and investigated recent scientific studies
to find out what you can do to calm a persistent cough.
1. A Chronic Cough is a Symptom of Parkinson’s Disease
Parkinson's is a progressive neurological condition where sufferers do
not have enough dopamine in the brain, which causes progressively
Coughing is a recognized, although not the most common, Parkinson’s
Some people with Parkinson’s have trouble with eating or swallowing
due to weakened muscles in the larynx. They may also produce too
little or too much saliva. This can lead to coughing or choking.
Parkinson’s medications can also result in a persistent cough.
Speech therapy for Parkinson’s disease can help build up the muscles in
the throat, help communication, and also help with the swallowing
problems that cause a cough.
A 1984 study from Manchester Polytechnic in Manchester, UK looked at
a total of 22 patients and found that a course of intensive speech
therapy was of value to patients with voice and swallowing problems
arising out of Parkinson’s disease.
2. Postnasal Drip Can Cause a Persistent Cough
Postnasal drip is also called upper airway cough syndrome and
develops from the nose.
When your nose is irritated by allergies or a condition like sinusitis it
produces more mucus than normal, and the type of mucus is watery
and runny. It drips down the back of the throat, causing a cough when
it triggers the nerves in the nasopharynx.
If you cough a lot because of postnasal drip you are more likely to
cough at night, and be aware of a tickly feeling in the throat.
Inhaling steam can help a persistent cough caused by postnasal drip.
Some evidence also points to the herb "marshmallow" as helping
soothe a postnasal drip cough.
A 1992 study from Medizinische Fakultät Comenius Universität,
Bratislava found the herb was moderately successful as a cough
3. You Can’t Stop Coughing Because of Asthma
Not every asthma patient suffers from wheeziness and breathlessness.
Some just cough. Asthma comes about from bronchospasm, where the
tubes that carry air into the lungs are narrowed. In "cough variant
asthma", coughing is the only symptom of the condition. In most cases
the cough is dry that happens throughout the day but may begin at
Boswellia, the herb, has been shown to be a potentially effective
treatment for asthma as it helps to inhibit inflammation.
A 1998 study from the Pharmazeutisches Institut der Universität
Tübingen in Germany looked at 80 people with relatively mild asthma
symptoms including coughing and found that 300mg of boswellia three
times a day helped reduce the frequency of asthma attacks.
4. Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease Can Cause Coughing
You may be surprised to learn that your persistent cough could be
caused by gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
And you may not even suffer from heartburn. GERD occurs when
stomach acid travels up instead of down into the intestines, resulting
usually in heartburn and belching. But in some cases the acid irritates
nerves in the lower esophagus, which can trigger a cough reflex.
Deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL), a form of the herb licorice, has been
shown to help treat GERD. A 1990 study from the University Hospital of
South Manchester in the UK studied a drug with similar ingredients to
licorice and found that it helped, although it is not clear whether licorice
itself offers clear benefits.
5. Your Persistent Coughing May Be Due to Chronic Bronchitis
Chronic bronchitis is persistent inflammation of the bronchial tubes,
which normally comes about due to smoking or to exposure to
chemicals in the air.
The chronic inflammation irritates the airways and causes excess mucus
production. Eucalyptus contains essential oils from the family
monoterpenes. These oils have been studied as a treatment for chronic
A 1991 study from Marienkrankenhaus in Germany found that oral
treatment with monoterpenes from eucalyptus oil helped prevent acute
flare-ups of chronic bronchitis, which could help reduce the frequency
6. An Ingredient in Chocolate Could Stop Persistent Cough
According to a 2004 study from Imperial College London and Royal
Brompton Hospital in the UK, an ingredient in chocolate could stop your
Theobromine, a cocoa-derivative, was found to be a third more
effective at stopping a persistent cough than codeine, currently
considered to be the most effective cough medicine.
Theobromine is thought to work by suppressing vagus nerve activity,
which is responsible for coughing.
7. Is a Persistent Cough a Sign of Lung Cancer?
You may panic that a persistent cough is a sign of a lung problem.
While lung cancer is not the most common reasons for a persistent
cough, it is a symptom.
Yet a 2010 survey carried out in the UK for Lung Cancer Awareness
Month found that only a small number of people in the UK realized that
persistent coughing could be caused by cancer.
The survey looked at 2,000 people and found that only 11 percent
identified a persistent cough as a sign of lung cancer. If your persistent
cough will not go away, and you are feeling rundown, you are losing
your voice or feeling breathless, get the condition checked out by a
A persistent cough can also be caused by impacted ear wax. You should
see a doctor to remove ear wax safely that has become impacted.]
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