Why Can’t I Stop Coughing, and How Do I Stop?

Depending on the cause, steam and OTC cough medicines may provide quick relief

There are many possible reasons why you can't stop coughing. A chronic cough (also called nagging or nonstop cough) is one that lasts for three weeks or longer.

While a nagging cough can be uncomfortable and distressing—especially if it keeps you up at night—most of the time these coughs are not serious.

The main causes of a nagging cough can be broadly categorized as:

  • Infectious (caused by a virus or other disease-causing organism)
  • Immunological (caused by an allergy)
  • Pulmonary (related to the lungs)
  • Gastroesophageal (related to the upper digestive tract)

Less common causes include heart failure and cancer.

This article describes some of the common and uncommon causes of a nonstop cough. It also explains how the cough might be diagnosed and treated and which symptoms warrant an immediate call to your healthcare provider.

Common Causes of Constant Coughing

Verywell / JR Bee

Nonstop Cough Relief: How to Stop Coughing

The underlying cause of a nonstop cough must be diagnosed before it can be successfully treated and cured. However, there are also things you can do to relieve the symptoms of a cough temporarily.

Here are some home remedies, over-the-counter medications, and prescription medications that can soothe or cure a cough.

Home Remedies

  • Cough drops and lozenges: Throat lozenges or cough drops may relieve coughs temporarily. Those containing menthol may be particularly effective as menthol acts as a mild anesthetic.
  • Steam: Breathing in steam from a pot or bowl can help break up mucus in the lungs and may relieve a cough. Adding eucalyptus oil or Vicks VapoRub to the steam can improve the effect.
  • Humidifier: Using a humidifier puts extra moisture in the air, reducing irritation from dry air. A humidifier may help reduce coughing by relieving the irritation in your airways.
  • Honey: A spoonful of honey can calm a cough and soothe an irritated throat.

Over-the-Counter Medications

  • Over-the-counter cough suppressants: These contain drugs like dextromethorphan that suppress coughs by reducing the sensitivity of the airways. If a cough is keeping you up at night, Nyquil, a cough medicine with a mildly sedating antihistamine, can help you sleep.
  • Vaporizing ointment: Vicks VapoRub is a mentholated ointment meant to be rubbed on the chest. The ointment releases vapors that provide a cooling sensation and can quiet a cough.
  • Antihistamines: Antihistamines are used to manage symptoms (including coughing) of allergic asthma or respiratory allergies.

Prescription Medications

  • Acid blockers: H2 blockers are used to suppress a cough caused by stomach acid production in people with acid reflux or GERD.
  • Antibiotics: Antibiotics are used up to clear a bacterial infection that may be responsible for a cough, as with bacterial pneumonia.
  • Inhalers: Different types of inhalers are used to treat asthma or COPD, including bronchodilators that open the airways and corticosteroids that reduce inflammation.

Always ask your child's pediatrician (or another healthcare provider) before giving a baby or young child an over-the-counter medication. Honey,eucalyptus oil, VapoRub, and steam can be dangerous in children and infants.

Common Causes of Chronic Cough

Causes of a chronic cough can range from those that are a nuisance to those that are potentially life-threatening. Even so, the greater likelihood is that the cause is not serious or, at the very least, manageable with proper treatment.

The causes of a chronic cough can be broken down by category.

Common Causes
  • Allergies

  • Asthma

  • Bronchitis

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

  • Emphysema

  • Gastrointestinal reflux disease (GERD)

  • Hiatal hernia

  • Lung infections

  • Medications

  • Pneumonia

  • Postnasal drip

  • Whooping cough

Less Common Causes
  • Congestive heart failure

  • Collapsed lung

  • Fungal infections

  • Lung cancer

  • Pulmonary edema

  • Tuberculosis

Infectious Causes

Infectious causes of a chronic cough most often involve a virus or bacteria. Less common causes include fungi and parasites.

Examples include:

  • Post-viral coughs: The common cold and influenza (flu) can cause a chronic post-viral cough. This differs from a cough that arises from acute symptoms like postnasal drip or sore throat. Instead, it is due to inflammatory damage to the airways caused by the viral infection.
  • Croup: This is an infection of the upper airways including the larynx (voice box), trachea (windpipe), and bronchi (bronchial tubes). In children, croup can cause a characteristic barking cough.
  • COVID: A chronic cough is characteristic of an acute COVID-19 infection, often accompanied by fever, shortness of breath, and loss of taste or smell.
  • Pneumonia: Both viral and bacterial pneumonia can cause a chronic cough due to inflammation of the alveoli (air sacs) in one or both lungs.
  • Whooping cough: With whooping cough (pertussis), periods of unrelenting coughing are accompanied by a characteristic "whooping" sound as a person inhales.

Immunological Causes

These are coughs that are triggered by an abnormal response of the immune system. There are three common forms:

  • Allergies: Seasonal allergies, including allergic rhinitis (hay fever), can cause a chronic cough. Environmental allergies to mold exposure, dust mites, and cat dander can also cause chronic coughing.
  • Allergic asthma: Also known as extrinsic asthma, this is a form of asthma that occurs when the immune system releases a substance called histamine in response to an allergy-causing substance. The coughing is due to both the narrowing of the airways (bronchoconstriction) and airway spasms (bronchospasm).
  • Non-allergic asthma: Also known as intrinsic asthma, this is a form of asthma that occurs when the body releases inflammatory chemicals in response to irritants like smoke, weather conditions, airway infections, food additives, and other environmental triggers. In some people, a cough is the only symptom, referred to as cough-variant asthma.

Pulmonary Causes

A constant cough can be caused by chronic diseases directly affecting the lungs, Examples include:

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)COPD is an important cause of a chronic cough, often accompanied by shortness of breath, wheezing, and chesty cough. Smoking is both a cause of COPD and a trigger for COPD exacerbations (attacks).
  • Bronchitis: Both acute and chronic bronchitis can cause someone to cough constantly. With chronic bronchitis, a form of COPD, the cough will typically produce phlegm.
  • Emphysema: This is a more advanced form of COPD for which a chronic, productive cough is a central feature. Emphysema occurs when damage to the alveoli causes pitting in the lungs.
  • Bronchiectasis: This is a condition that occurs when the airways become damaged and widened. Causes of bronchiectasis include prior childhood infection, immune deficiency, and conditions like cystic fibrosis or connective tissue diseases.

Gastroesophageal Causes

Acid reflux, whether occasional or chronic, can cause coughing due to the backflow of stomach acid through the esophageal sphincter. This is the valve through which food passes from the esophagus (feeding tube) into the stomach.

Two common gastroesophageal causes of chronic cough include:

  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD): GERD is a chronic form of acid reflux. Chronic coughing can occur at night when lying down. It's followed by a hoarse cough in the morning due to esophageal inflammation.
  • Hiatal hernia: This is when part of the stomach protrudes into the chest through the sheet of muscle called the diaphragm. Hiatal hernia can disrupt the normal position of the esophageal sphincter, allowing acid to backflow into the esophagus.

Pharmaceutical Causes

Medications called ACE inhibitors used to treat high blood pressure and heart failure can cause chronic coughing both during the day and at night.

ACE inhibitors associated with chronic coughs include

  • Altace (ramipril)
  • Capoten (captopril)
  • Lotensin (benazepril)
  • Prinivil (lisinopril)
  • Vasotec (enalapril)

Uncommon Causes of a Chronic Cough

Less common causes of a constant cough include:

  • Congestive heart failure: Heart failure can cause an unrelenting cough. This cough may produce pink foamy phlegm and usually worsens with lying down. It is most often accompanied by shortness of breath.
  • Collapsed lung: A pneumothorax (collapsed lung) can cause a perpetual cough that often begins suddenly. In addition to a cough, people may note shortness of breath as well as a crackling breathing sound known as crepitus.
  • Fungal infections: Fungal diseases such as coccidioidomycosis, histoplasmosis, and cryptococcosis, among others, may result in a chronic cough.
  • Lung cancer: Lung cancer is a less likely cause of a chronic cough but is important to keep in mind if you have risk factors for the disease. Roughly 50% of people with lung cancer have a cough at the time of their diagnosis.
  • Pulmonary edema: This is when fluid accumulates in the air sacs of the lungs, causing coughing and difficulty breathing. Pulmonary edema can be caused by heart failure and other conditions such as lung infections, neurological disorders, and medications.
  • Tuberculosis: While tuberculosis is fairly uncommon in the United States, it does occur. In addition to a chronic cough, weight loss and night sweats are common.

Types of Chronic Cough

A chronic cough is technically one that persists (or recurs frequently) for more than eight weeks. The features of the cough can differ based on the underlying cause and may be described in different ways.

Wet (productive) coughs are typically those described as being:

  • Loose
  • Congested
  • Chesty
  • Rattling
  • Phlegmy

Dry (non-productive) coughs are more commonly described as being:

  • Hacking
  • Hoarse
  • Barking or "croupy"
  • Brassy or "metallic"
  • Throaty, ticklish, or itchy

A cough may have other descriptive features, such as being:

  • Painful
  • Wheezy or "whistling"
  • Spastic or paroxysmal (occurring in fits or attacks)

Accompanying symptoms may include fatigue, shortness of breath (dyspnea), heartburn, nausea, fever, and nasal congestion. These and other features can give your health provider a clue as to the cause and nature of your cough.

Some chronic coughs are considered "wet" or productive (meaning that you're coughing up phlegm or mucus) and others are "dry" or non-productive (meaning that you're coughing up nothing).


When you see your healthcare provider, the first thing they will do is review your symptoms and medical history and perform a physical exam. This may include listening to lung sounds with a stethoscope.

Based on the findings, the healthcare provider may order the following tests and procedures:

  • Blood tests: A white blood cell count (WBC) may be done to look for signs of viral or bacterial infections.
  • Bronchoscopy: A bronchoscopy is a test in which a small tube with a light is inserted through your mouth and into your large airways.
  • Chest X-ray: A chest X-ray may be done to look for pneumonia and other possible causes of coughing.
  • Computerized tomography (CT) scan: A CT scan involves multiple X-ray images that are composite to create a three-dimensional image of internal structures, such as the lungs.
  • Esophageal pH testing: This is used to check for signs of acid reflux.
  • Laryngoscopy: Laryngoscopy is a procedure in which a tube is inserted through the mouth to visualize the area around your vocal cords.
  • Nasal swab: A nasal swab can check for infections such as the flu or COVID-19.
  • Spirometry: Spirometry is a test that measures how much air you can blow out of your lungs. It is commonly used to diagnose asthma or COPD.

Can't Stop Coughing? When to Worry

Most causes of a cough resolve with treatment and time. But if you experience these symptoms, get emergency medical attention.

Call 911 if your chronic coughing is accompanied by:

  • Severe chest pains
  • Choking
  • Stridor (high-pitched wheezing sounds)
  • Inability to catch your breath
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeats
  • Swelling of the face, tongue, or throat
  • Lightheadedness or fainting
  • Severe trouble breathing
  • Swelling of the face or tongue
  • Coughing up blood-tinged saliva or mucus.


A chronic cough is one that persists or recurs for more than eight weeks. There are many possible causes including infections, allergies, asthma, COPD, GERD, and even certain medications. Less common causes include tuberculosis and cancer.

The diagnosis of chronic cough may involve a physical exam, blood tests, chest X-rays, nasal swabs, or direct imaging procedures like bronchoscopy or laryngoscopy. The treatment varies by the cause.

A chronic cough may not be serious, but it is something you should never ignore, especially if you have no idea of the cause or get no relief from over-the-counter or home remedies. A healthcare provider can identify the cause and recommend appropriate treatment. They may also be able to identify serious concerns like an infection or cancer.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is a constant cough a sign of COVID-19?

    Yes. Along with a fever and loss of taste and smell, a persistent cough is one of the main symptoms of COVID and may linger for weeks or months after you’re infected. Talk to your healthcare provider about treating a COVID cough. Not all cough medicines are helpful with COVID, and you need to consider whether it’s safe to take a cough suppressant alongside other medication you may be using.

  • Can honey stop a coughing fit?

    It is considered a good cough remedy. Multiple studies have shown that honey can suppress a cough and help ease symptoms of an upper respiratory tract infection. 

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Lynne Eldridge, MD
 Lynne Eldrige, MD, is a lung cancer physician, patient advocate, and award-winning author of "Avoiding Cancer One Day at a Time."