Cough is the most frequent breathing symptom, a complex mechanism which helps protecting the respiratory system.

Cough is a defense mechanism that has the purpose to keep the airways free from secretions, mucus, phlegm and irritants like smoke, dust etc. It occurs due to the irritation of specific receptors located in the larynx, trachea and bronchial tube. Basically we talk about acute cough if it lasts less than three weeks and it is linked to infectious forms of the respiratory tract (colds, acute laryngitis, acute tracheitis, acute bronchitis), while it is called chronic cough if it lasts longer than eight weeks and is resistant to symptomatic treatments.

When cough is accompanied by other symptoms, it is easier to attribute the cause to a specific disease: e.g. in association with normal sputum is the clinical picture of chronic bronchitis; when it is associated with breathlessness with wheezing it could be asthma; when it occurs acutely in association with fever and respiratory distress may indicate the presence of bronchopneumonia. Therefore, it is necessary to consider all the other symptoms present simultaneously and correlate them with the results of the chest x-ray and pulmonary function tests.

Common causes of chronic cough are mainly chronic respiratory diseases, for example outbreaks of pneumonia, chronic bronchitis, allergies. There is also a distinction among "dry cough" (caused, for example, by irritation from smoking or excessive dryness of the air),"productive cough" (if mucus is expelled), "convulsive cough" (eg. when provoked by the presence of a foreign body into the trachea), "nervous cough" (not due to an involvement of the respiratory tract).

If the problem persists for a long time (weeks), the physicians should investigate whether cough is a symptom of serious illness of heart or lungs. As cough represents a defense mechanism, it should not be inhibited, but when it is particularly painful special measures have to be adopted to mitigate it:
drink a lot and often in order to rehydrate the upper respiratory tract, reducing the state of anger and getting an emollient effect on the secretion;
humidify locations and avoid excessive heat;
avoid smoking and areas with stagnant cigarette smoke.

It will still be important to limit the use of drugs (sedatives or expectorants). In fact, especially with regard to sedative drugs, excessive use may delay an important diagnosis or slow down the ejection mechanism of secretions and any microbes contained in them.

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