What causes coughing spasms?

A cough has many causes, the most common of which is an upper airway infection, such as a common cold. Coughing spasms can be due to whooping cough (pertussis) or a chronic lung condition, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or asthma. Whooping cough is uncommon in infants due to vaccination, but it is surprisingly common in adults because the vaccination becomes less effective over time. The coughing spasms of whooping cough typically end with a “whoop” sound as the person gasps for air.

Very serious and life-threatening conditions that cause coughing spasms include congestive heart failure, pulmonary edema, and lung cancer. Other possible causes include allergies, pneumonia and bronchitis. Because there are so many different possibilities, some of which are life threatening, it is important to contact your physician or other healthcare provider to discuss your symptoms and answer your questions.

Infectious causes of coughing spasms

Coughing spasms can be a symptom of various viral and bacterial infections including:

  • Acute bronchitis

  • Common cold (viral respiratory infection)

  • Croup (viral illness that is common in young children)

  • Influenza (flu)

  • Pneumonia

  • Tuberculosis (serious infection affecting the lungs and other organs)

  • Whooping cough (pertussis)

Other causes of coughing spasms

Other causes of coughing spasms include:

  • Airway irritation such as from air pollution

  • Asthma and allergies

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD; includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis)

  • Congestive heart failure (deterioration of the heart’s ability to pump blood)

  • Foreign body (airway obstruction)

  • Lung cancer

  • Pulmonary edema (abnormal fluid accumulation in the lungs)

  • Pulmonary embolism (blocked lung artery, usually due to a blood clot)

  • Smoking

  • Tumor of the larynx

Questions for diagnosing the cause of coughing spasms

To aid in diagnosing the cause of your coughing spasms, your doctor or licensed healthcare provider will ask you questions related to your symptoms. You can best help your physician in diagnosing the underlying cause of your coughing spasms by providing complete answers to these questions:

  • How long have you had the cough? When did the coughing spasms begin?

  • Have you had previous episodes of coughing spasms?

  • Does anything seem to trigger your coughing spasms?

  • Are you coughing up anything (including blood)?

  • Do your coughing spasms improve with exposure to warm or moist air?

  • Are you breathing through your mouth (instead of your nose)?

  • What have you tried to relieve your coughing spasms?

  • Is your cough keeping you up at night?

  • Do you have a fever?

  • What other symptoms do you have?

What are the potential complications of coughing spasms?

Coughing spasms are often a sign of an infectious, allergic, or inflammatory process. It is important to contact your healthcare provider when you experience coughing spasms without an obvious cause or if your cough is persistent, recurrent, or causes you concern. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, following the treatment you and your doctor design specifically for you can help lower your risk of potential complications including:

  • Dehydration due to reduced fluid intake

  • Dehydration if coughing spasms occur with diarrhea or vomiting

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Fainting from acute coughing spasms

  • Fatigue

  • Hypoxemia (lack of sufficient oxygen in the blood) and hypoxia (lack of sufficient oxygen in body tissues)

  • Muscle soreness and even cracked ribs from severe coughing spasms

  • Respiratory failure and respiratory arrest

  • Vomiting


  1. Anatomy and Function of the Normal Lung. American Thoracic Society. http://www.thoracic.org/clinical/copd-guidelines/for-patients/anatomy-and-function-of-the-normal-lun....
  2. Cough. American Academy of Family Physicians. http://familydoctor.org/online/famdocen/home/tools/symptom/516.html.
  3. Cough. American Academy of Pediatrics. http://www.healthychildren.org/english/tips-tools/symptom-checker/pages/Cough.aspx.
  4. Cough. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/cough.html.
  5. Pertussis. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001561.htm.
  6. Pertussis (Whooping Cough). Nationwide Children’s Hospital. http://www.nationwidechildrens.org/gd/applications/heh/pdf/HH-I-58.pdf.
  7. What are the Signs and Symptoms of COPD? American Thoracic Society. http://www.thoracic.org/clinical/copd-guidelines/for-patients/what-are-the-signs-and-symptoms-of-cop....
  8. Domino FJ (Ed.) Five Minute Clinical Consult. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2013.

What are coughing spasms?

A coughing spasm is continuous coughing for longer than about five minutes. A cough is your body’s defensive reflex that functions to keep your airways clear of irritating or obstructing substances so that you can breathe effectively. Coughing spasms can make it difficult to breathe or talk during the coughing spell. Severe spells can even cause vomiting, choking, retching, light-headedness, mu... Read more about coughing spasmsintroduction


What other symptoms might occur with coughing spasms?

Coughing spasms often occur in conjunction with other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Other symptoms include fever, shortness of breath, and chest pain. Some symptoms, such as abnormal sounds the lungs make while you are breathing, changes in blood pressure, and low blood oxygen levels may only be evident using certain instruments in the clinical... Read more about coughing spasmssymptoms

Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Annual Review Date: Aug 9, 2013 Copyright: © Copyright 2014 Health Grades, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Health Grades, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the HealthGrades User Agreement.

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