As a family medicine specialist, this is a question I am frequently asked. A cough is an involuntary reflex that comes from our brain when our brain senses that we need to clear out our airway (the tube that leads from our mouth to our lungs). But still, why? This can be one of many reasons.
First, infections are most often the case, especially when the cough occurs suddenly. If it occurs with fever, runny nose or mucus, it is most commonly because of infections.
But what if it is not sudden and occurs for a long period of time? It may be a chronic disease, most likely asthma or emphysema. Asthma is a condition when we have difficulty getting the air out of our lungs due to a narrow or inflamed airway. If you have that condition, certain causes can trigger it, such as exercise, infections, allergies, cold air, stress, exposure to chemical fumes or secondhand smoke. Often, these patients need treatment like a hand-held inhaler to widen the airway or stop it from narrowing.
Emphysema is when we have difficulty getting the air into our lungs. The most common cause is smoking, either first-handedly or second- handedly. Many of us who are often around smokers can develop emphysema without ever smoking first-handedly. This is becoming a big concern for those who work or have worked around smokers. It was not long ago when customers could smoke in restaurants and bars in Philadelphia. Also, pollution can cause the same effects on us. There are similar inhalers for all of these patients to utilize as a treatment option.
Some patients may be genetically prone to these diseases due to a deficiency of a certain enzyme. But, of course, the most important cause is smoking tobacco. What makes this so important is that smoking is modifiable. That is, we can stop the behavior. This is easier said than done. Better yet, you should never start smoking. That is why the campaign to the young is so important and is making a difference for future generations.
No discussion about coughing would be complete without the mention of lung cancer. This is often fatal and, as in all cancers, early detection is a key to survival. Any cough that is accompanied by coughing up blood must be investigated with a chest X-ray and often a cat scan of the lungs. So, if you have a cough lasting longer than the time of a common cold, please see your doctor who can investigate and prescribe a regimen appropriate for you. ••
Jack Tumasz, D.O., is board certified in family medicine. He practices with EPIC Physician Group at 8019 Frankford Ave.