Updated 24 August 2017

Causes of a cough

Causes of a cough can be a symptom of a wide variety of different health conditions, ranging from a foreign body to infective diseases and even cancer.


Cough has an array of possible causes, ranging from a foreign body lodged in the airways to an infective cause and even cancer. The type of cough usually gives an indication of the cause, but only in conjunction with full history taking and proper physical examination can the cause be determined and treated.

A cough can be classified by its duration, character, quality, and timing. 


Acute coughs: coughing for less than three weeks

Subacute coughs: cough lasting between three and eight weeks

Chronic cough: coughing for more than eight weeks

It is important to note that a persistent cough causing severe discomfort, lasting for even a couple of days should be examined by a doctor.


The character of the cough (what it sounds like) is dependent on the level of the respiratory tract where it originates and the cause of the cough.

The type of cough is also important in determining a cause.  Coughs can usually be described as “wet/productive” or “dry”. Various causes for each exist.


The character of a cough is also determined by the level in the respiratory tract where the cough has its origin:

causes of cough

Cough has numerous causes and should be investigated if not clearing by itself in a couple of days or if it has a sudden onset with associated symptoms. 

Read more:

What is a cough?

Types of cough

Treating a cough

Image: Girl coughing for doctor from Shutterstock


From our sponsor

Read Health24’s Comments Policy

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Ask the Expert

Cough Expert

Professor Keertan Dheda has received several prestigious awards including the 2014 Oppenheimer Award, and has published over 160 peer-reviewed papers and holds 3 patents related to new TB diagnostic or infection control technologies. He serves on the editorial board of the journals PLoS One, the International Journal of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease, American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Medicine, Lancet Respiratory Diseases and Nature Scientific Reports, amongst others. Read his full biography at the University of Cape Town Lung Institute.

Still have a question?

Get free advice from our panel of experts

The information provided does not constitute a diagnosis of your condition. You should consult a medical practitioner or other appropriate health care professional for a physical exmanication, diagnosis and formal advice. Health24 and the expert accept no responsibility or liability for any damage or personal harm you may suffer resulting from making use of this content.

* You must accept our condition

Forum Rules