The short answer is yes, sinus drainage can cause a persistent cough, although there are other triggers for a cough as well. It is natural and normal for the glands in your throat, airways, nose, intestinal tract, and stomach to produce mucus. In fact, it is estimated that the nose produces approximately a quart of mucus daily! This substance is thick and wet, designed to keep the inner lining of these areas moist. Not only does mucus prevent dryness, but it is also important to protect against infection-causing invaders, such as viruses and bacteria.
Postnasal Drip: What You Need to Know
Most of the time, you don’t notice mucus production in the nose and sinuses because it drips into the back of the mouth, where it mixes with saliva and then moves down the back of the throat. This function is known as postnasal drip. You are swallowing this mucus throughout the day without a conscious thought about what is happening.
This process becomes more noticeable when the mucus production is increased. For example, a bacterial or viral infection can cause a runny nose and sinus congestion. As a result, the mucous might start to bother you because of the amount and thickness of it. Common symptoms can occur, including coughing, a sore throat, or frequently clearing the throat.
Postnasal drip is caused by a variety of health conditions that trigger increased mucus production:
- Sinus infection
- Certain medications
- Weather changes
- Foods (such as spicy ingredients)
- Environmental irritants (chemicals, smoke, cleaning products, etc.)
Another reason that you might notice postnasal drip is because the mucus isn’t being cleared away properly. Your body might be producing the right amount of mucus, but then it builds up because of a blockage or other health concern that is interfering with the normal function.
How the Sinuses Play a Role in Postnasal Drip
The sinuses are air-filled cavities within the head, with four pairs that have right and left sides. If the sinuses are infected or inflamed, it can cause various symptoms, one of which is an increase in mucus production. When this occurs, you will notice more postnasal drip as explained above.
One common problem that occurs with chronic sinus infections is that the nonstop postnasal drainage results in a chronic cough. As the thickened mucus drains down the back of the throat, it causes a “tickle” to be felt, triggering a coughing reaction.
You can clear your throat and blow your nose, but the irritated sinuses will continue producing more mucus… causing the throat tickle to never go away. The more you cough or clear your throat, the further irritated the voice box (larynx) becomes, a vicious cycle.
Pay attention to how your upper respiratory system responds when you lay down to sleep at night. For example, when the sinus drainage causes a lot of postnasal drip, then it may cause you to cough at night. When you get up in the morning, your voice might sound hoarse and the coughing symptoms increase as the body is working to clear the mucus.
When Should You Talk to an ENT about Sinus Drainage?
If you suspect that you might have a sinus infection or chronic inflammation in the sinuses, then schedule an appointment with a local ENT.
Usually, sinus problems are a secondary issue that happens after you’ve had another type of illness. For example, a common cold will stick around for 7 to 10 days before the symptoms clear up. If the cold leads to the development of a sinus infection, then the nasal symptoms will continue to persist, even after the other upper respiratory symptoms have subsided.
Another common cause of a postnasal drip sensation is silent reflux. When drainage down the back of the throat occurs, triggering increased coughing and throat clearing, if a patient has concurrent “silent reflux” of acid from below, both will lower the cough/throat clearing threshold, and long after the nasal symptoms subside, persistent cough and throat clearing can be from an “unmasking” of previously asymptomatic “silent reflux”. Certain blood pressure medications can trigger a cough. An ENT can help tease out a persistent etiology.
It’s normal to have a bit of sinus drainage and mucus production. But if you notice any of the following symptoms, then your best choice is to schedule an appointment for diagnosis and treatment:
- Chronic cough
- Dull pressure in your head or face
- Pressure increases when leaning over
- Nasal discharge that is thick and yellow/green
- Symptoms get worse or don’t subside after 10 days
Treatment Options for Sinus Drainage and Coughing
When the main symptom is coughing, most people turn to over-the-counter treatments to manage the cough, such as cough syrup or throat lozenges. Alternatively, one can use a cool-mist humidifier in the bedroom at night. For adults and children over one year of age, a teaspoon of honey at bedtime can be beneficial. While these treatments might provide immediate relief, they don’t treat the root problem: excess drainage from the sinuses, triggering medications or other throat irritants.
An ENT can perform a thorough history and physical to ascertain both sinus and non-sinus contributors to cough. CT scanning of the sinuses, available in the office, can be invaluable in diagnosing the source. Appropriate treatment can then be prescribed. You might need to take medication to thin the mucus, or antibiotics if you have a bacterial sinus infection. Certain exacerbating conditions may need to be addressed, or medication changes made. If these noninvasive treatments don’t work, then your ENT might recommend surgery or in-office procedures to open the sinuses.
Talk to a Local ENT
A consultation with an ENT can be a great way to understand why you are coughing and how sinus drainage is playing a role in your symptoms. Our experienced team is here to identify the right diagnosis. Then, we will create a personalized treatment plan to help you find the relief that you need.
When you are looking for an experienced ENT in the Denton or Dallas area, consider the services offered here at Collin County Ear, Nose, and Throat. We have a skilled staff, top-notch technology, and convenient offices located in Frisco and Plano, TX: (972) 596-4005