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When is a cough not just a cough?

You think of your persistent cough and hoarse voice as mere annoyances—certainly not anything that needs to be taken seriously.

But how do you know your symptoms are harmless? Chronic coughing, or a cough that lasts three weeks or more, with or without a sore throat, could be signs of an illness that requires medical attention.

Bronchitis, flu, laryngitis and pneumonia are some of the more recognizable culprits. But some coughing or hoarseness can be caused by conditions you may not know about:

  • Postnasal drip. Allergies, colds and sinus infections can force mucus production into overdrive, letting the excess accumulate in the back of your throat and making you cough.
  • Asthma. A chronic, dry cough is a lesser-known sign of asthma. If you have mild asthma, a cough may be your only symptom. Other symptoms may include wheezing and shortness of breath. The cough may come and go as seasons change or become worse when you breathe in cold air or irritants.
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Stomach acid repeatedly backing up into your throat can cause ongoing irritation that leads to persistent coughing and a hoarse voice.
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Cigarette smoking is the most common cause of COPD, an irreversible condition that damages lungs and makes it hard to breathe. In addition to coughing, you may experience shortness of breath (especially with exercise), wheezing and chest tightness. Another—although rarer—cigarette-related condition that can lead to coughing is lung cancer, which may be accompanied by bloody mucus.
  • Medications. Blood pressure medications such as ACE inhibitors and beta-blockers can cause coughing in as little as one week after starting treatment.

Bottom line? If you’re not sure what’s behind your cough, see your healthcare provider, who can help you put your symptoms to rest.