What's up with that cough?: Hint: It could be asthma

March 2, 2017

You have a chronic cough. But you don't have other symptoms that would suggest asthma—such as wheezing, shortness of breath or tightness in the chest.iStock-516280293.jpg

So clearly you don't have asthma, right?

Not necessarily. You might have a specific type of asthma in which chronic cough is the sole symptom. It's called cough-variant asthma.

Trouble in the lungs

Asthma is a lung disease that causes your airways to swell and constrict, making it hard to breathe. Airways that are inflamed are more sensitive to irritation—which can come in the form of things like strong odors, chemicals, cold air or allergies.

If you have cough-variant asthma, your cough may be triggered by exposure to any of these things.

Get a diagnosis

A chronic cough could be a sign of other health problems, such as gastroesophageal reflux or postnasal drip. So your first step is to see your doctor if you cough a lot—especially at night—and over-the-counter cough medicines don't help.

Your doctor may order tests, such as a chest x-ray. You may be asked to exhale with force through a tube for a test called spirometry. You might also undergo a breathing test specifically for cough-variant asthma, called a methacholine challenge.

Asthma usually is treated with two types of inhaled medicines. One is used every day to reduce inflammation in the airways. The second, known as an emergency or rescue inhaler, is used when breathing becomes difficult. It opens blocked airways quickly.

In addition, you and your doctor will want to figure out what things trigger your asthma-related cough and how you can avoid them.

Sources: American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology; American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology; American Lung Association

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