A cough is a reflex action of the lungs trying to clear mucus or other potential irritants from the airwaves. It’s very common and not usually a sign of any particular condition, and will clear up without any treatment if it is not accompanied by other symptoms. However, a persistent cough can be a sign of an underlying condition in some cases. 

  • One of the most common human reflex reactions.
  • Usually caused by mucus during an infection or food in the windpipe
  • Will get better without treatment in most cases

If you have a cough and are concerned, you can speak to one of our GMC-registered clinicians by using our live video consultation service. 10-minute appointments are available between 9.30am and 4.30pm, five days a week.

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Possible causes

What causes a cough?

The causes of a cough depend on whether it’s a chronic or an acute cough. An acute cough lasts for less than 3 weeks, a subacute cough lasts between 3-8 weeks, and a chronic cough lasts more than 8 weeks.

One of the most common causes of a short-term, acute cough is a respiratory tract infection. An upper respiratory tract infection is the most common, and is caused by the presence of a virus in the airways. Flu, cold, sinusitis and laryngitis are just some examples of many conditions that may be responsible for an upper tract infection.

Lower respiratory tract infections are less common, and can be caused by bacteria and fungi, as well as viruses. They can trigger severe lung infections such as bronchitis or pneumonia. Asthma can also result in coughing when it is exacerbated by cold air or during exercise, and irritants to the lungs such as smoke can cause acute episodes of coughing.

Chronic causes of coughing include acid reflux, where the stomach can pass acid into the airways, which may lead to coughing, as well as heartburn. Mucus from the nose dripping down the back of the throat can lead to chronic coughing and is a common occurrence for someone with an allergy or hay fever

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is a severe condition that can lead to chronic coughing as the lungs become increasingly damaged. It’s most commonly associated with smoking.

Diagnosing the cause of a cough

Normally, you’ll only need to see a doctor about a cough if it is severe, or if it doesn’t go away on its own after a week or two.

In order to diagnose the cause of a cough, a doctor will need to know about your medical history and also perform a physical exam to assess the condition of your lungs. 

A doctor will ask questions such as:

  • When did the cough start?
  • Are you aware of what the trigger is?
  • Is it accompanied with mucus?
  • Are you a smoker?
  • Do you have any allergies?

They may also want to know whether there are other symptoms present, such as pain in the chest, a fever and shortness of breath. 

It’s important to tell a doctor if you have been in close contact with someone who has a respiratory infection, such as tuberculosis or pneumonia.

In addition to your medical history, a doctor will also most likely use a stethoscope to examine the condition of your lungs. They may also decide to check your oxygen levels by attaching a small clip called an oximeter to the end of your finger.

There are several other tests a doctor may decide to conduct depending on what they suspect the cause of your cough is. X-rays and CT scans can be useful if a lung condition is suspected, but they will not be able to reveal more common reasons for a cough, such as mucus drip.

A doctor can also take a blood sample to see if antibodies are being produced to fight off an infection. A spirometry test may be used to examine how well someone is breathing. It involves a plastic instrument which you breathe into as hard as you can. 

If you have mucus with your cough, and this is green or yellow, a doctor may want to have it examined in a laboratory to see if you have a chest infection.

To speak to one of our registered clinicians online about your cough, you can book an appointment through our video consultation service. Appointments are available from 9.30am to 4.30pm, five days a week.

Page last reviewed:  11/06/2020
Types of Treatment

How is a cough treated?

Treatment is not usually necessary for a cough, as it is typically a symptom of a condition that will go away in less than three weeks. For chronic coughs, the underlying cause will need to be identified and, in some cases, treated.

A cough caused by a viral infection does not require any medication, as the virus is self-limiting and the symptoms will go away without treatment. There are self-help measures that can soothe the throat which may help the cough, such as drinking a honey and lemon mixture, and using a steam inhaler. Cough syrup can be useful for easing tickly coughs, and paracetamol and ibuprofen can be offered to alleviate pain that may be associated with the cough. 

It may be necessary to adjust your current medication if it is contributing towards a cough. If you smoke it is highly recommended to stop (ideally altogether, but at the very least while you have a cough) as the cigarette smoke will exacerbate it. Other remedies include using a humidifier in your home to remove damp and dust mites, which can make coughs worse, and sucking on lozenges.

If it’s a bacterial infection that is causing a cough, you may be advised to take antibiotics to clear the infection. If you suffer from asthma, speaking to your specialist about adjusting your treatment plan can help to get symptoms of a flare-up under control. 

If acid reflux is the cause of a cough, you can take acid blockers to help minimise the production of acid. 

If your cough is bothering you or is accompanied with signs of another condition, you can contact one of our doctors online via our video consultation service to discuss your symptoms. Our doctors are available between 9.30am and 4.30pm, five days a week. They will be able to offer advice on how to manage the cough, and whether your symptoms warrant further treatment.

Page last reviewed:  11/06/2020
Questions and Answers

How long is it normal to have a cough for?

A cough can be a daily occurence, as we often feel the need to clear our throat when we inhale small particles or debris in the air. It is a normal reflex reaction to an irritant in the lungs, or the presence of mucus. An acute cough is usually due to a viral infection so will last no more than three weeks.

A chronic cough can last for over eight weeks and may be due to a serious condition in the lungs, so it is important to contact a doctor if your cough persists for this length of time.

Is a cough serious?

A cough is not usually serious, but it can be an indication of a more serious condition if it is persistent or very severe.

If your cough has lasted for longer than a couple of week, is getting worse or is accompanied by difficulty breathing, chest pain or other symptoms, you should speak to a doctor.

Can I get treatment for a cough?

Treatment for a cough is not usually necessary, but severe coughs may be helped depending on the cause. 

For example, asthma and mucus drip can be helped by glucocorticoids and decongestants which are available on prescription. Antihistamines can also be used if the cough is being caused by an allergy.

How can I prevent a cough?

It is not always possible to prevent a cough, but avoiding potential irritants such as cigarette smoking and generally dusty areas can help.

Doing what you can to steer clear of flu and other infections will reduce your chances of developing a cough too.

If you have a condition such as asthma, make sure you keep on top of your treatment plan to limit the risk of a flare-up developing.

And if you smoke, quitting will help to prevent you from coughing.

Can I speak to a doctor about a cough online?

If you would like to speak to a clinician online, you can do so by using our online video consultation service. You can book an appointment anytime to consult with one of our GMC-registered clinicians between 9.30am and 4.30pm, five days a week. They can issue advice about coping with a cough, prescriptions (where suitable) and help clarify if you will need further treatment or an examination in person.

Page last reviewed:  11/06/2020

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