What causes a persistent cough?

The most common causes of a persistent cough are asthma, postnasal drip, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). A persistent cough is not usually due to infection, although there are infectious diseases that are associated with a chronic cough. Less commonly, a persistent cough is due to life-threatening conditions, such as heart failure, pulmonary edema, or lung cancer. There are other possible causes as well, so talk to your medical professional about your symptoms.

Infectious causes of a persistent cough

A persistent cough can be due to certain infections including:

  • Respiratory tract infection

  • Whooping cough (pertussis)

  • Tuberculosis

Other causes of a persistent cough

A persistent cough can be due to causes related to the respiratory, digestive and circulatory systems including:

  • Acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)

  • Airway irritation, such as from air pollution

  • Asthma and allergies

  • Bronchiectasis

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

  • Congestive heart failure

  • Lung cancer

  • Postnasal drip from sinusitis or upper respiratory infection, such as the common cold

  • Pulmonary edema

  • Pulmonary embolism

  • Sarcoidosis

  • Smoking

Medications can cause a persistent cough

Certain medications that can cause a dry cough include ACE inhibitors to control high blood pressure (including captopril).

Questions for diagnosing the cause of a persistent cough

To aid in diagnosing the cause of your cough, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will most likely ask you questions related to your symptoms including:

  • How long have you had the cough?

  • Are you coughing up anything?

  • Have you been sick recently (with the cold or flu)?

  • Do you have any pets?
  • Do you smoke?

  • Is the cough keeping you up at night or interfering with your daily activities?

What are the potential complications of a persistent cough?

A persistent cough can be a sign of an infectious or inflammatory process, many of which can be easily treated. It is important to visit your health care provider when you experience a persistent cough without an obvious cause. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, following the treatment plan outlined by your doctor can help lower your risk of potential complications associated with a long-lasting cough including:

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Fainting spells from acute cough attack

  • Fatigue

  • Vomiting

  • Pulmonary hypertension

  • Recurrent respiratory infections such as pneumonia


  1. Cough. FamilyDoctor.org. http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/health-tools/search-by-symptom/cough.html.
  2. Cough. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/cough.html.
  3. Domino FJ (Ed.) Five Minute Clinical Consult. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2013.
  4. Birring SS. Controversies in the evaluation and management of chronic cough. Am J Respir Crit Care Med 2011; 183:708.

What is a persistent cough?

Coughing is your body’s defensive reflex that keeps your airways clear of irritating or obstructing substances (e.g., mucus) so you can breathe effectively. A cough can be dry or it can be productive, meaning that you are coughing up mucus (also known as phlegm or sputum). A cough is one of the most common reasons people visit their primary care doctor.

Primary care physicians of... Read more about persistent coughintroduction


What other symptoms might occur with a cough?

A persistent cough may occur in conjunction with other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Other symptoms include fever, difficulty breathing, and chest pain. Some symptoms, such as 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 doctor’s office... Read more about persistent coughsymptoms

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.

This Article is Filed Under: Lungs, Breathing and Respiration, Sinusitis

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