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If you have been coughing for days or even weeks, you probably need to see a doctor for a diagnosis. The possibilities for the cause of constant coughing, however, are a lot more than a lingering cold or bad allergies.

What are the most common causes of chronic cough?

Non-stop coughing may be caused by ACE inhibitors, acute bronchitis, air pollution, allergies and asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), pertussis (also known as whooping cough), and other chronic respiratory infections. Let's take a look at each of these causes of chronic cough one by one.

ACE inhibitors are a commonly prescribed class of medications for high blood pressure. Most of their generic names end in -il, for example, lisinopril or ramipril (although verapamil is a drug for hypertension that is in a different class). About one in five people who uses these drugs develops a dry cough that simply won't go away. Persons of Asian or Latin American Hispanic descent are more likely to have a bad reaction to this class of drugs, but a related class of medications call the ACE-receptor blockers does not have this side effect.

Acute bronchitis was once thought to be primarily a children's disease, but it also occurs in adults. Bronchitis is an inflammation of the bronchial passages of the lung, and acute bronchitis usually develops as you are getting over a cold. In addition to an especially phlegm-laden cough, there may also be chills, fever, muscle aches, sore throat, and symptoms of the flu. Even after these symptoms go away and the cough is no longer productive (phlegm doesn't come up when you cough), the cough can persist for weeks. If the cough does not go away, however, you may have chronic bronchitis, in which the lungs produce excess phlegm on an ongoing basis.
Air pollution can exacerbate coughing caused by allergies or asthma. Even short-term exposure to fumes or smoke can cause a long bout of constant coughing, only improving when air pollutant levels fall to normal. Oddly, particulate pollution, such as the ash from burning wood or coal, tends to cause serious breathing problems, but not asthma in particular.

Allergies to dander, dust, and pollens can cause coughing accompanying sneezing, wheezing, and teary eyes. Allergic reactions usually go away when the allergic trigger goes away. If you can get away from the plant pollens to which you are allergic, for example, you will stop sneezing and coughing. Asthma, on the other hand, is a chronic condition that is not just an allergic reaction. Asthma may be triggered by changes in temperature, overexertion, exposure to tobacco smoke or toxic fumes, or even by eating too many salty foods. Coughing caused by asthma tends to be worse at night or in the early morning, and does not have any particular "season." Asthma tends to occur all year round.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, also known as COPD, is most commonly caused by smoking, although it can result from long-term exposure to air pollution and even hormonal imbalances such as hypothyroidism. In COPD, the damaged lungs try to protect themselves by secreting mucus. Reflex action keeps the COPD sufferer coughing night and day to remove the phlegm from air passages.

Gastroesophageal reflux disease, also known as GERD, is an underappreciated cause of chronic coughing. GERD occurs when stomach acid backs up into the esophagus because of a "leaky" esophageal valve. The main symptom of GERD is killer heartburn, but it can also cause chronic laryngitis, chronic sore throat, nasal symptoms, and chronic cough.

Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, was once a deadly children's disease. It's recently made a comeback as an infection affecting people of all ages. The term whooping cough refers to the distinctive high-pitched "whoop" sound made as the person with the disease tries to breathe between coughs. Aside from a mild fever and a runny nose, cough is the main symptom of the disease. Whooping cough in children under 10 requires medical treatment. It's potentially fatal. Whooping cough in adults is almost never fatal but can cause coughing that lasts for weeks.

Other respiratory infections can also cause chronic coughing after most other symptoms go away, although chronic cough often goes hand in hand with postnasal drip. When chronic cough is accompanied by greenish or rust-colored mucus, the respiratory infection is probably bacterial or viral pneumonia.

What to do about chronic cough?

What can you do about chronic and persistent dry cough? Aside from treating the underlying disease conditions, try these helpful considerations.
  • Take a vitamin B supplement that includes vitamin B6. You may not experience greater lung capacity, but you will probably experience less wheezing and coughing.
  • Eat a piece of fruit every day and servings of green vegetables several times a week. Studies in the UK of people with asthma, chronic bronchitis, or COPD who never ate fruit or vegetables have consistently noted dramatic improvement after including even one serving of fruit and vegetables a day in the diet.
  • Identify your personal coughing triggers, whether they are tobacco smoke, some frequently eaten food, fumes, dust, or pollen, and make a point of avoiding them.
  • If you are allergic to pollen, limit your time outdoors between 5 a.m. and 10 a.m., when most plants pollinate.
  • Try yoga. You don't have to do the asanas (postures) perfectly. The breathing practice that accompanies yoga will help you control cough and breathe more deeply.
  • And, finally, try eating onions. Onions, as well as whole apples, grapefruit, and grapefruit juice, are great sources of the antioxidant quercetin. This plant chemical is a natural antihistamine, stopping the process of inflammation in the lungs, nose, and throat that keeps air passages constantly irritated.
In a Finnish study involving 10,000 men and women, the flavonoids quercetin, hesperitin, and naringenin, found in apples and oranges, protected against asthma. Other fruits and vegetables, such as grapefruit, cabbage, and various fruit and vegetables were not associated with a decreased risk of asthma. A British study focusing on consumption of apples found that eating 1-1/2 oz (42 g) of apple a day reduced risk of asthma attacks by about one-third. Many people who eat these foods on a regular basis report that their coughing is greatly improved, and in some cases, coughing completely disappears.
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