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January 25, 2011 > When is a Cough Just a Cold?

When is a Cough Just a Cold?

Washington Hospital Seminar Focuses on Respiratory Conditions

How can you tell if a cough is just a cold, or a sign of something much worse? It can be hard to know when it's time to call the doctor.

"It depends on the cough and your medical history," said Dr. Samir Vora, a local pulmonologist who will be talking about coughs at an upcoming Washington Hospital seminar. "An occasional cough is normal, but when it becomes persistent, that's when it might be something to worry about."

He will present "Treatment Options for Cough and Other Respiratory Conditions" on Tuesday, February 1, from 1 to 2:30 p.m. The free seminar will be held at the Conrad E. Anderson, M.D. Auditorium at Washington West, located at 2500 Mowry Avenue in Fremont. You can register online at or call (800) 963-7070 for more information.

Vora will first provide an overview of the lungs and explain what actually happens inside your body when you cough. The lungs are spongy, air-filled organs located on each side of the chest. Air is inhaled and exhaled through the trachea or windpipe into a fine network of tubes that allow oxygen to travel deep into the lungs, where the air sacs or alveoli transfer oxygen into the bloodstream and carbon dioxide out.

"A cough is a protective reflex," said Vora, who is a member of the Washington Hospital staff. "It is designed to expel any foreign substance from the airways."

There are a number of conditions that can cause a cough, from the common cold to more serious diseases like tuberculosis and lung cancer, according to Vora. He said a lot depends on the type of cough and how long it has lasted, as well as whether you smoke or have a history of asthma.

"We categorize coughs by looking at duress and how long it has persisted," he explained. "There are three major categories for coughs."
Acute or Chronic?

The first category is an acute cough, which lasts less than three weeks, according to Vora. The most common cause of an acute cough is a cold or allergies.

"People want antibiotics at the first sign of a cough," he said. "But antibiotics work on very few coughs. An acute cough is usually the result of a common viral cold and antibiotics only work on bacterial infections."

A subacute cough is the next category and these types of coughs last between three and eight weeks. He said the third category is a chronic cough, and it lasts more than eight weeks.

"Subacute coughs may happen when a cold goes away but the cough lasts," Vora said. "It's often caused by postnasal drip. You get that feeling that something is stuck in your throat. It's an annoying feeling, but eventually it goes away."

A chronic cough, on the other hand, can go on for months or even years, Vora said. He will talk about some of the causes, including post nasal drip, acid
reflux, and asthma.

"Categorizing coughs helps us narrow down a diagnosis and avoid unnecessary tests and treatments," he said. "Once we can rule out lung cancer or tuberculosis, people are so relieved. They find it much easier to deal with the cough knowing eventually it will go away."

Vora will discuss some of the treatment options that are available, including over-the-counter cough medicines and home remedies for fighting the common cold. He will also talk about medications that can help with a chronic cough, including antacids and inhalers.

"It can be so confusing when you go to the pharmacy," Vora said. "I will explain the difference between antihistamines, decongestants, and cough suppressants."

He added that because treatments differ widely depending on the type of cough you have, it's critical to get an accurate diagnosis.

"You need to pay attention to how long your cough has lasted and any other characteristics that you can describe to your doctor," Vora said. "That's the only way your physician can know how to effectively treat the cough."

Washington Hospital Offers Pulmonary Rehabilitation

Washington Hospital's Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program offers one on one counseling for people that suffer from shortness of breath, asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), pulmonary fibrosis and other respiratory diseases. To learn more about the services provided, call (510) 494-7025 or visit

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