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When to worry about a cough, from Harvard Men’s Health Watch

For most men, chronic coughing raises the specter of cancer. But is cancer really a common cause of a cough that lingers? And if it’s not, what is? The September 2010 issue of Harvard Men’s Health Watch discusses potential causes of this irritating problem.

Cough is actually a vital player in the body’s defense against disease. Coughing pushes out mucus, microbes, and foreign particles from the respiratory tract, protecting the lungs from infection and inflammation. In addition, cough-triggering nerves in the respiratory tract can be irritated by infections, allergies, cold air, tumors, smoke, dust, or normal bodily fluids. It’s no wonder, then, that so many different things can trigger a cough.

No one worries about the occasional cough. And most people are aware that many illnesses—ranging from hay fever and the common cold to bronchitis and pneumonia—cause recurrent coughs that usually fade away in a matter of a few days to a few weeks. In contrast, a chronic cough is defined as one that lingers longer, sometimes lasting for months or even years.

Dozens of conditions can cause a recurrent, lingering cough, but in nonsmokers, the lion’s share are caused by just five: postnasal drip, asthma, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), chronic bronchitis, and treatment with an ACE inhibitor, used for high blood pressure or heart failure.

Don't ignore a chronic cough, notes Harvard Men’s Health Watch, but also don’t panic just because you have been coughing for more than three or four weeks. The cause can usually be found without elaborate tests, and the problem can often be corrected with simple treatments. But if you are a smoker with a lingering cough, or if your cough brings up blood or a lot of sputum, or is accompanied by symptoms such as fever, weight loss, or night sweats, consult your doctor without delay.

Read the full-length article: “That nagging cough”

Also in this issue of the Harvard Men's Health Watch

  • Immunotherapy: A new option for advanced prostate cancer
  • That nagging cough
  • Medical memo: Nutrition and fertility
  • On call: Floaters

More Harvard Health News »


About Harvard Health Publications

Harvard Health Publications publishes four monthly newsletters--Harvard Health Letter, Harvard Women's Health Watch, Harvard Men's Health Watch, and Harvard Heart Letter--as well as more than 50 special health reports and books drawing on the expertise of the 8,000 faculty physicians at Harvard Medical School and its world-famous affiliated hospitals.