Cracking The Cough Code

Women's Health South Africa|July 2020

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Cracking The Cough Code
2020 could easily be dubbed the year of the cough (hello, COVID-19!), but not all coughs are equal. Let’s take a look at the different types and what underlying conditions each of them could be signalling
Yamkela Mdaka

When the first cases of COVID-19 were reported to the World Health Organization on 31 December 2019, no one could have imagined just how much of an impact it was going to have on what was meant to be the “breakthrough” year for most of us. It has completely changed the landscape of the world as we know it, and it’s made coughing a popular topic.

But coughs are simply an indicator of things that could be happening inside your body. In some instances, they can be quite harmless, only working to expel an irritant in the throat, while in others, they can be indicative of a more sinister underlying condition.


Just like most things in the world, coughing has a purpose. Dr Farzana Ismail, a pathologist at the National Institute For Communicable Diseases (NICD), explains that a cough is meant to be a protective reflex. “The reflex is triggered by both physical and chemical stimuli in one’s chest, mouth, nose, throat and many of the pipes/tubes and organs in that part of the body,” she says. “An occasional cough is normal and healthy; however, if the cough persists for weeks and is accompanied by other signs and symptoms, it may be indicative of a medical condition that requires medical attention.”


The easiest way to categorise coughs is by how long they last. This is broken down into three categories: acute, subacute and chronic. Professor Mpiko Ntsekhe, head of the division of cardiology at the University of Cape Town, explains that a cough is considered acute if it lasts less than three weeks, chronic if it lasts longer than eight weeks and subacute if it’s in between three to eight weeks.


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July 2020