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What Can Cause A Persistent Cough?

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Updated June 09, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Question: What Can Cause A Persistent Cough?
Answer: A persistent cough can have many different causes, and it's important to have this symptom evaluated by a doctor. While it's natural to assume a chronic cough is due to a respiratory problem, you might be surprised to learn that studies indicate a persistent cough is often a sign of GERD, a condition caused when the contents of your stomach inappropriately leak into your esophagus.

When stomach acid backs up (known as acid reflux) into the esophagus and is breathed in, it can cause coughing. Irritation from the acid reflux in the throat can also cause coughing.

Other symptoms of GERD, along with a persistent cough, can include:

  • Chest pain
    This pain usually starts behind the breastbone (the sternum), and may travel up to the throat. It usually occurs shortly after eating and can last from a few minutes to several hours. It is important to remember that sometimes the pain of a heart attack can be confused with the burning pain of GERD, and it is always important to seek medical attention if there is any doubt as to the origin of this chest pain.

  • Hoarseness, especially in the morning
    Irritation caused by refluxed stomach acid into the throat can lead to hoarseness.

  • Difficulty swallowing
    Trouble with swallowing (dysphagia) occurs when food does not pass normally from the mouth through the esophagus to the stomach. There may be a sensation of food sticking in the throat or a feeling of choking. Difficulty swallowing could be a sign of various conditions, including erosive esophagitis and esophageal cancer, and should always be evaluated by a physician.

  • Bad breath
    When acid from the stomach comes up into the throat and mouth, acrid-smelling, bad breath may result.

Related Resources:

Sources:

"Heartburn, Gastroesophageal Reflux (GER), and Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)." NIH Publication No. 07–0882 May 2007. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC)

"Information You Can Stomach -Understanding GERD." The American College of Gastroenterology

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  6. What Are Reasons for a Persistent Cough?

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