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What is an asthma cough?

An asthma cough, also known as cough-variant asthma or CVA, is a dry cough that doesn’t produce any phlegm or mucus.

Asthma cough is also sometimes called a chronic (ongoing) cough, as it lasts longer than six weeks. Often it doesn’t coincide with other asthma symptoms such as wheezing or breathlessness, so you may not realise that the cough is associated with asthma.

Asthma cough can come on anytime day or night. Sometimes it can stop you getting a proper night’s sleep as the coughing can keep you awake at night.

Some things can make an asthma cough worse, for example being exposed to asthma triggers. These triggers can be things that cause allergies, such as dust, feathers or animal fur. Exercise or cold temperatures can also bring on an asthma cough.

Cough-variant asthma is most common in children who have asthma. It can also be triggered following a chest infection or sinusitis. A person with an asthma cough can go on to develop asthma, symptoms of which include wheezing and a shortness of breath.

Certain drugs can cause an asthma cough. Beta-blockers, used to treat conditions including cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure, can bring on the symptoms of an asthma cough. People who are sensitive to aspirin may also experience an asthma cough.

How is it diagnosed?

Asthma cough can be difficult to diagnose because it may not come with any other symptoms. Someone with cough-variant asthma may not display the other classic symptoms of asthma, including wheezing, tightness in the chest and a shortness of breath. Asthma cough can sometimes be confused with a cough caused by bronchitis or a cough caused by drips from your nasal passages (postnasal drip).

Before diagnosing you with asthma cough, your doctor will ask you questions about your medical history, physically examine you and listen to your chest. He or she may then recommend further tests such as a chest x-ray and spirometry. Spirometry is a lung-function test where you breathe into a device called a spirometer to see how well you expel air from your lungs.

How can you treat an asthma cough?

An asthma cough is treated in the same way as asthma, by using asthma medications administered through an inhaler. These types of medicines help to stop your bronchial tubes (airways) becoming inflamed by a trigger, which stops the dry coughing.

Treatments for asthma cough vary depending on the severity of your condition. Some people will respond to treatment with a Ventolin inhaler. The inhaler contains the active ingredient salbutamol, which relieves the inflammation in your airways. Other patients with a more severe asthma cough may also need a stronger steroid treatment such as cortisone to relieve it.

Combination products and other devices are also available to treat asthma cough, including dry-powder inhalers and aerosols that dispense a metered dose.

If you think that you may have an asthma cough, consult your doctor who can diagnose if you have the condition and prescribe the right treatment for you.

What are other causes of coughing?

There are a number of causes of coughs. A cough is basically a reflex action by your body to get rid of irritants such as dust, or mucus in the chest.

Coughs can be ‘acute’ (they don’t last long), or ‘chronic’ (they don’t go away). ‘Dry’ coughs are tickly and irritating and you don’t cough anything up. An asthma cough is a type of dry cough. With a ‘chesty’ cough, mucus (phlegm) is produced, which you cough up.

Coughs usually clear up in a few weeks without needing any treatment. Some coughs don’t go away, and if you have a persistent cough that has lasted three weeks or more then you should get it checked out by your doctor.

Coughs can be caused by:

  • upper respiratory tract infections - these are viral infections such as colds, flu or whooping cough that affect the sinuses, throat or windpipe
  • lower respiratory tract infections - these types of infections affect your lungs or lower airways, and include pneumonia or acute bronchitis
  • flare-ups of long-term conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, or chronic bronchitis
  • allergies, such as hay fever
  • inhalation of environmental irritants such as smoke or dust
  • postnasal drip - where mucus drips from the back of the nose down the throat as a result of condition such as sinusitis or rhinitis
  • sleep apnoea - a condition where your breathing is disrupted while you’re asleep.

Although most coughs are harmless and clear up after time or after treatment, they can rarely be a sign of something more serious such as lung cancer or heart failure.

Why do we cough?

A cough is the body’s way of protecting itself from things that get into your windpipe and airways that shouldn’t be there. It’s a reflex action designed to quickly expel whatever you’ve inhaled, for example dust particles or food that ‘goes down the wrong way’.

If you have a cough that won’t go away, go and see your doctor for advice.

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