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Cough Symptoms and Treatment

We all get coughs from time to time and most are caused by a cold or flu virus and are not normally an indication of anything more serious. In many cases, the cough is there to help protect your lungs and prevent more serious infections. It’s an automatic action, also called a reflex action, that clears your throat and airway.

A cough will usually go away on its own in two to three weeks. However, if your cough lasts for more than three weeks, you should see a GP.

When should you see a doctor about a cough?

As we mentioned, most coughs will go away on their own within three weeks without the need to visit a doctor. You can visit a pharmacist, who will be able to advise on whether any over the counter medication will help your symptoms.

However, you should see a GP if:

  • your cough lasts for more than three weeks
  • you cough up bloody mucus – get an urgent appointment if you do
  • you have asthma and you think it is getting worse
  • your cough is severe
  • you have other symptoms, such as trouble catching your breath or wheezing
  • you have chest pain
  • you notice your cough is getting worse over a short period of time
  • Unexplained swelling in your neck
  • you have a weakened immune system
  • you have lost weight

What can a cough be a symptom of?

While a cough is not normally a sign of anything serious, it may be a symptom of another underlying condition. This can include:

Respiratory tract infections (RTIs)

RTIs are the most common cause of a cough. They can be an upper respiratory tract infection, such as colds and flu. They are usually caused by a virus, so cannot be treated with antibiotics, but should go away on their own within a couple of weeks.

There are also lower respiratory tract infections, such as bronchitis, which is an infection of the bronchi, the main airways to the lungs. It can result in yellow or grey phlegm, a sore throat and wheezing. These infections sometimes need treating with antibiotics if severe.

Asthma

A persistent cough, or coughing in cold air, at night or during exercise, may be a sign of asthma. You may also have symptoms such as wheezing and breathlessness.

Allergies

Allergies like hay fever can result in a cough. These are usually accompanied by other symptoms when encountering what you are allergic to, such as a runny nose and irritation to your eyes.

Postnasal drip

Mucus can drip down into your throat from the back of your nose, causing you to cough. This is usually caused by a condition such as sinusitis. Most cases of sinusitis settle on their own within a couple of weeks.

Irritants

If things like smoke, chemicals or dust get into your throat, it can irritate your airway and cause you to cough.

Whooping cough

This is caused by a bacterial infection in the lungs and airways. It can last up to three months or more. Initially it may appear with the same symptoms as a common cold or flu.

Tuberculosis (TB)

If you have TB, you may have a persistent cough and bring up phlegm, which may have specs of blood in it.

Acid reflux or GORD

If acid, or acid fumes from your stomach reach your throat because of GORD or acid reflux, it can make you cough.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

COPD is lung damage caused by things such as smoking, chronic bronchitis and emphysema. It can cause a cough and breathlessness.

Medication side effect

If you have recently started a new medication, such as an ace inhibitor, this can cause you to develop a cough as a side effect.

Rarer causes of a cough

Lung cancer

One of the symptoms of lung cancer can be an acute cough. If you have a persistent cough and other symptoms you are worried about, then a doctor can help.

Choking

If something gets stuck in your throat, it can cause coughing.

Cystic fibrosis

This is an inherited condition usually diagnosed at birth or in early childhood. It causes a chronic cough.

This is not a full list of potential causes - see a GP if you are worried about your cough.

What should you do if you have a cough caused by an underlying condition?

If you believe you may have an underlying condition that’s causing your cough, it’s a good idea to see a doctor. If you have been suffering with a long-term cough and it is not getting better, this is particularly important.

At Push Doctor, you can see a GP online, on any device, from home, work or even on the go at a time that suits you. Our GPs can listen to your cough over video consultation, discuss any other symptoms you may have and suggest the right treatment to get you back up on your feet and feeling better as quickly as possible.

Our doctors are available 7 days a week. They can also refer you to a specialist for further investigation or treatment if needed.