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How Does a Cough Become Chronic?

How Does a Cough Become Chronic?

Coughing is a natural reflex to protect your lungs. When an irritant enters your throat or lungs, the nerves in your airways send a message to your brain, making you cough to expel the irritant.

Coughs are a common symptom of illness, like the common cold and the flu, and most of the time the cough subsides within a few weeks as your body heals. But when a cough doesn’t go away on its own, it could be a sign of a more serious lung condition.

Dr. David Kamelhar, Dr. Eric Teller, and our team at Kamelhar-Teller Pulmonology specialize in diagnosing and treating persistent coughs. If you’ve had a cough for eight weeks or longer, it’s time to learn more about how coughs become chronic and what to do about it.

Acute cough vs. chronic cough

Nerves in your airways trigger your coughing reflex when they sense an irritant. The irritant might be any number of things, like mucus, smoke, environmental allergens, or something else entirely.

Most coughs are acute, which means they last anywhere from a few days to about eight weeks. Coughing usually has a clear cause, such as:

If the cough is acute, it will go away within eight weeks. If you have a cough for longer than eight weeks, it is considered a chronic cough.

Why coughs become chronic

Chronic coughs start as acute coughs, and they have many of the same symptoms. The difference is that chronic coughs last much longer, and they can lead to more serious complications.

When a cough doesn’t go away, it may mean that your airways are still irritated and inflamed. Lung inflammation can cause breathing difficulties and shortness of breath. Unfortunately, the longer you wait to seek treatment, the worse the cough may get.

Chronic coughs can keep you from falling asleep at night or wake you up throughout the night. Interrupted sleep can leave you fatigued to the point that it affects your quality of life.

You might develop a persistent cough if you have a chronic health condition that affects your upper respiratory system. In fact, up to 90% of chronic coughs are caused by either asthma, acid reflux, or postnasal drip. Sometimes, chronic coughs are the result of lifestyle habits, like smoking.

Chronic coughing is also a sign of serious lung diseases, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). COPD develops with chronic lung inflammation, and the leading risk factor is smoking cigarettes. 

What to do if you have a chronic cough

When you notice that a cough hasn’t gone away within about two months, schedule an appointment with our lung specialists at Kamelhar-Teller Pulmonology. Dr. Kamelhar and Dr. Teller can analyze your cough to identify the cause and find an appropriate treatment plan.


We perform a comprehensive physical exam and review your medical history to understand your cough and pinpoint possible causes. Sometimes, we use medical imaging or pulmonary function testing to confirm your diagnosis.

After we diagnose what’s causing your chronic cough, we can treat it. Although many lung conditions can’t be cured, treatment can effectively manage your symptoms and help eliminate your chronic cough.

Have a cough that’s not going away? Don’t ignore it. Get the treatment you need at Kamelhar-Teller Pulmonology in Manhattan, Midtown East in New York City. Call us at 212-685-6611 or request your first appointment online now.

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