Treatment for this kind of asthma usually includes prescription medicines, such as inhalers, but lifestyle changes can also help
Do you have asthma? If so, you may cough while working up a sweat on the treadmill. Maybe being outdoors among allergens like ragweed and pollen gives you an asthmatic cough. Or maybe your cough is triggered by indoor allergens like pet dander, dust, or mold, chemical irritants such as perfumes and cleaning products, cold air or air pollution. No matter what the cause, it is often uncomfortable and inconvenient.
Asthmatic cough treatment often includes two prescriptions. These asthma medicines include fast-acting bronchodilator inhalers, which open constricted airways to relieve your coughing attack, and/or daily corticosteroid inhalers, which keep inflammation in the airways at bay. Certain lifestyle changes can help too. Here’s how to stop an asthmatic cough in its tracks, according to experts.
RELATED: How common is asthma?
What is an asthmatic cough?
As opposed to a viral infection (like a cold or the flu), asthma is a long-term lung condition, says Casey Kelley, MD, a board-certified family medicine physician, founder and medical director at Case Integrative Health. It causes your airways to narrow, making breathing more difficult and can trigger coughing or wheezing.
While most might associate asthma with gasping for air, there is a type called cough-variant asthma that produces a chronic cough, Dr. Kelley explains. “This is generally what we refer to as a non-productive cough in that it is dry and doesn’t produce mucus or phlegm,” she says, adding it’s usually triggered by airway swelling from exercise or exertion; it may also be accompanied by wheezing.
According to Dr. Kelley, an asthmatic cough is usually chronic, lasting longer than six weeks. Typically, asthmatic coughs don’t respond to traditional OTC cough medicine, and instead requires treatment with prescription asthma medication, she says.
Can an asthmatic cough cause damage to the lungs?
In short, yes. When not treated and managed appropriately, an asthmatic cough (and asthma in general) can damage your lungs, Dr. Kelley says. “Long-term inflammation is never good, and the chronic inflammation of the bronchial passages can cause damage, and permanently narrow the airways,” she says. What’s more, inflammation can cause your bronchial muscles to become enlarged, which can reduce overall lung function.
Additionally, because an asthmatic cough can make movement difficult, it may increase your likelihood of health conditions like obesity and high-blood pressure, explains Dr. Kelley. That’s why it’s so important to form a treatment plan with your medical team and take any prescribed medications as directed.
What does an asthmatic cough sound like?
An asthmatic cough is usually dry, meaning that it doesn’t produce any mucus or phlegm says Dr. Kelley. It may also be accompanied by shortness of breath and/or high-pitched whistling or wheezing sound in the chest, but an asthma cough can occur as a standalone symptom.
Symptoms associated with asthma cough
In addition to causing the airways in the lungs to become inflamed and swollen, asthma causes breathing tubes to constrict and tighten, making the lungs more reactive to allergens or irritants. Coughing is the body’s way of clearing irritants from the lung. Along with a dry cough, you may experience:
- Chest tightness
- Shortness of breath
An asthmatic cough can seem like many other types of cough, says Len Horovitz, MD, an internist and pulmonary specialist at Northwell Health’s Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. That’s why it’s important to differentiate it from other coughs with other causes such as:
- Allergic coughs are dry and may be accompanied by itching and sneezing; they usually resolve with allergy medications or removal of the allergen.
- Sinus-related coughs with post nasal drip are usually wet, triggered by nasal secretions that drain down the back of the throat.
- Gastrointestinal reflux disease (GERD) or acid reflux-related coughs are marked by coughing after meals or at night time and often occur with regurgitation and heartburn.
- Chronic coughs with neurologic origins are dry, often caused by a tickling or choking sensation; they can last for months or years.
- Coughs related to respiratory infections are usually wet (productive) and accompanied by other symptoms such as fever, fatigue, and general cold/flu symptoms; they usually resolve after the infection has cleared.
How to stop an asthmatic cough
There are many different treatments for an asthmatic cough, says Dr. Kelley. The best treatment will depend on the patient, and the severity of asthma symptoms.
1. Take medication
There are several types of prescription medication used to treat an asthmatic cough, including inhaled corticosteroids, bronchodilators, and leukotriene receptor antagonists.
Inhaled corticosteroids like Flovent, Pulmicort, and Advair, are a common first-line treatment, says Dr. Kelley. These medications come as a steroid or a steroid combined with a long-acting beta-agonist. Used daily on a long-term basis to prevent symptoms, these medications work by decreasing airway inflammation.
Bronchodilators, or rescue inhalers like Ventolin and Proventil that contain albuterol are used for quick relief during asthma flare-ups. Rescue inhalers are used as needed to treat coughing or shortness of breath, says Dr. Kelley. These should be used less frequently and should not replace a daily controller inhaler, she says.
Leukotriene receptor antagonists
Singulair is a leukotriene receptor antagonist, a type of long-term oral medication taken daily that treats allergies to help prevent asthma attacks. Dr. Horovitz says he prescribes Singulair to his asthma patients, especially when they also have sinus disease.
RELATED: Asthma treatments & medications
2. Minimize common triggers
Carpeting and drapes accumulate dust and should be avoided, says Dr. Horovitz. To minimize allergens inside the home, HEPA air filters are important. And while no one wants to get rid of their dog or cat, sometimes animals can be a precipitating factor. “I would tell any asthmatic not to get a cat,” he says.
RELATED: Asthma attack triggers and how to prevent them
3. Practice breathing exercises
The American Lung Association recommends breathing exercises to strengthen the lungs and make them more efficient. They include:
- Pursed lip breathing: Take a deep breath in through your nose and out through your mouth (with pursed lips) for at least twice as long.
- Diaphragmatic breathing: Also called belly breathing, this is done by breathing in through your nose (paying attention to your stomach as it expands from the air) and slowly breathing out. For example, breathe in for two counts and out for four to six counts.
4. Try lifestyle changes
A whole body approach can help to manage symptoms of asthma. You can try to:
- Prioritize sleep and rest
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Exercise regularly
- Manage your allergies
- Eat healthy whole foods including lean protein, fruits and vegetables, and minimally processed carbohydrates
- Stay up to date on your vaccinations, including COVID, pneumonia, and influenza
- Work with your healthcare provider to make an asthma action plan
- Take your medications as prescribed
Dr. Horovitz says elderberry syrup may be worth a try, although it’s not a miracle cure. He would not recommend using Vicks Vaporub for an asthmatic cough. That’s because although it may seem soothing, products like menthol, eucalyptus, and other inhalants, can actually trigger an asthmatic cough, he says.
RELATED: Home remedies for asthma—and what to do if they don’t work
There are a few ways to stop an asthmatic cough that occurs at night, Dr. Kelley says.
- Clean your bedroom regularly to avoid dust mites and other allergen exposure.
- Invest in a humidifier (dry air is a common asthma trigger). Be sure to clean humidifier per owner’s manual.
- Sleep with your head slightly elevated to alleviate pressure on your lungs and airways.
The bottom line
If you have untreated asthma, see a provider to make a treatment plan. Usually, treating your underlying asthma with prescription medications (like bronchodilators and inhaled corticosteroids) will control an asthmatic cough, says Dr. Horovitz. And while an asthmatic cough alone doesn’t warrant a trip to the emergency room, he says that if you’re experiencing shortness of breath (difficulty breathing can be life-threatening), go to the ER for immediate medical attention.