Updated 25 January 2019

Risk factors for coughing

Dusty environments and simple viral illnesses will make most of us cough, but there are certain situations that could increase the risk.

Everyone will cough at some point as it’s a natural defence mechanism. Dusty environments and simple viral illnesses will make most of us cough, but there are certain situations that could increase the risk.

  • Active smoking: The chemicals in tobacco smoke irritate and damage the lung lining, and make the lungs produce more mucus. Not all smokers will cough, but it’s very common.
  • Aeroallergens (airborne substances that can cause an allergic response): If you’re allergic to certain inhaled allergens like pollen or pet dander, it can trigger allergic rhinitis (hay fever), which can cause coughing along with worsening asthma, if applicable.
  • Environmental irritants: There are many irritants in our home and work environments (e.g. smoke, strong chemical fumes, mould). On their own, or when coupled with a lack of ventilation, these irritants can cause coughing.
  • Chronic respiratory illness: Examples include asthma, chronic-obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and pulmonary fibrosis.
  • Outdoor air pollution: Living near freeways, dusty work places (e.g. working in a quarry) and certain chemical plants may result in coughing

Read more:
Diagnosing a cough

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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