No matter why it’s happening, a cough is always annoying—it’s loud, it’s uncomfortable, and it never fails to garner unwanted attention.
But what’s really behind that cough? Can allergies cause coughing—or do you just have an annoying cold?
Well, turns out, there are some pretty distinct differences between allergy coughs and cold coughs.
Just curious: Why do we cough, anyway?
“The purpose of a cough is to help us,” says Monica Lee, MD, an otolaryngologist at Massachusetts Eye and Ear. It’s your body’s way of trying to expel something it perceives as a threat in the airway, she says.
Those perceived threats can be a bunch of different things: a piece of food stuck in your throat, pollen, air pollution, or swelling or drainage from extra mucus in your throat. All those things irritate the sensory fibers in your airway, which then stimulate a cough.
As for what exactly happens in your body during a cough? It’s kind of complex, says Dr. Lee. Basically, your vocal chords close briefly to generate pressure in the lungs. Once enough pressure is built up, your vocal chords open back up, and air flows quickly through your voice box, which generates that coughing sound. Kinda cool, huh?
So…can allergies cause coughing? Give it to me straight.
In short, yes. Usually, allergies create dry coughs (it’s a direct reaction to something you’re sensitive or allergic to in the airways). If that’s the case, you’ll likely have other symptoms (think: itchy, watery eyes; a runny nose; an itchy throat; and sneezing, says Dr. Lee). Headaches and wheezing often come with allergies, too, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology.
Timing’s also a factor. If you’re allergic to pollen (or your BFF’s new adorable kitten), for example, you’ll likely notice symptoms (including your cough) almost immediately, or within an hour of being exposed. And those symptoms could last for hours after you’ve been exposed—even after the allergen isn’t nearby anymore.
Coughs related to allergies are also dependent on patterns, so doctors always try to look at the big picture. Say you get a cough every single March. That could be a sign you’re actually suffering from allergies, instead of the common cold. “You need to look at everything that’s going on,” says Paul Bryson, MD, an otolaryngologist at the Cleveland Clinic.
Your best defense for a cough from allergies? Antihistamines like Allegra, Claritin, and Zyrtec, which are all available over-the-counter. Other options include steroid nasal sprays and immunotherapy shots, which can work to regulate your body’s response to allergens, instead of just relieving the symptoms.
How do I know my cough is from a cold?
You know how allergy coughs are typically on the drier side? Coughs from colds (or the flu) tend to be on the wetter side (that “wetness” is actually mucus your body is trying to move out of your body, says Dr. Lee).
Coughs that come along with a cold usually come along with stuffiness, along with postnasal drip (a.k.a., mucus running down the back of your throat), which can cause a sore throat or chest discomfort. A low-grade fever may also signal a cold instead of allergies.
Colds aren’t as immediate as allergies. Instead, they tend to develop over the course of a few days, says Dr. Bryson.
You can try a few different things to help relieve a cough. Decongestants can work for, well, congestion. And ingredients like dextromethorphan (found in many multi-symptom products like Vicks NyQuil Cold & Flu Nighttime Relief) can can help ease the coughing itself. Just make sure you take any products as-directed.
It should be said, however, that a dry cough isn’t always allergies, just like a wet cough isn’t always a cold. Allergies can plague your nose, for example, causing post-nasal drip (a wet cough), while mild colds might not leave you stuffed up enough to produce any phlegm.
Do I ever need to worry about a cough?
Something important to remember: A cough—no matter its cause—shouldn’t be your norm.
Colds usually run their course within a couple of weeks, which means a cough associated with a cold should go away in about three weeks time (though some can linger on for as long as eight weeks), according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. The length of an allergy-related cough will vary depending on how (if) you’re treating it.
But if you notice you’re still barking after two months of symptoms, see your doc. You could either be dealing with an allergy you’re not aware of (this is where an allergy test could come into play) or potentially suffering from another issue such as asthma (especially if you notice shortness of breath with any of your symptoms), reflux, pneumonia, or bronchitis, says Dr. Bryson.
And if something (allergies or a pesky cold) is bothering you enough to disrupt your life, don’t put off getting it checked out. If nothing else, seeing a doc will give you peace of mind and maybe even speed up your recovery time.