Updated 25 January 2019

Causes of coughing

Cough has an array of possible causes, ranging from a foreign body lodged in the airways to an infective cause and even lung cancer.

It’s important to distinguish the non-life-threatening cough, such as that caused by a common viral cold, from one caused by tuberculosis or lung cancer. This isn’t always that easy in the first instance, but most “dangerous coughs” last longer than a few weeks (although both types might be equally severe in the acute stage).

Generally, coughs are divided into groups according to duration. This helps sort out the self-limiting from the chronic causes. But it’s important to recognise that every cough has to start at some point – even a cough caused by a cancer will, in the beginning, only have been there a short while.

  • Acute cough: coughing for less than three weeks
  • Sub-acute cough: cough lasting between three and eight weeks
  • Chronic cough: coughing for more than eight weeks

Cough has numerous causes. It should be reviewed by a healthcare practitioner if it doesn’t clear up by itself within a couple of days, if the cough is productive of blood, or if it’s associated with severe chest pains, for example.

Read more:
Risk factors

Reviewed by Professor Richard van Zyl-Smit, Head of the Lung Clinical Research Unit at the University of Cape Town. MBChB, MRCP(UK), Dip HIV(Man), MMED, FCP(SA), Cert Pulm(SA), PhD. February 2018.


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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.

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