To treat a cough, it’s important to determine the cause. Different types of cough suggest different causes.
Your doctor will invariably ask what comes up when you cough (and would even want to see it!), how much you cough per day, and what colour the sputum is.
Dry coughs are usually caused by airway irritants, exacerbations of asthma, smoking, certain drugs like ACE inhibitors, some infections in the early stages and chronic lung disease such as pulmonary fibrosis.
Wet coughs are often caused by an infective process: commonly due to bronchitis, pneumonia or tuberculosis. A very common cause is a post-nasal drip (which may follow a common cold). Heart failure with “fluid on the lungs” may also result in a “wet cough”. The volume of what comes up, and when you cough, are important to note when going to see your doctor.
“Cough hygiene” is an important aspect of managing a cough – covering your mouth when you cough and/or coughing into your sleeve or a tissue is very important. This is vital in a country such as South Africa which has a high TB rate, as TB is spread by coughing droplets of sputum infected with TB organisms into the air.
No matter what the cause might be, always be sure to cover your mouth.
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.