A cough can be a symptom of many different conditions. Usually it’s not a sign of something serious and should go away on its own within three weeks.

In certain circumstances it’s advised that you speak to a doctor about a cough – read on to find out what a cough can indicate, and when it might be pointing to a serious health concern.

What is a cough?

A cough is a reflex action that can help to clear the airways. Coughs can be dry and tickly, or wet and chesty – a chesty cough may bring up phlegm.

When mucus or irritants such as dust and smoke get into the lungs your body responds by coughing to clear out the airways and make it easier to breathe. You will also naturally start coughing if something gets stuck in your windpipe.

Commonly, a cough is caused by a respiratory tract infection that affects the throat, windpipe, airways and lungs. It can also be a recurring symptom of an allergy or a long-term condition such as asthma.

If you smoke you might develop a smoker’s cough. This is a persistent cough that occurs in response to a build-up of chemicals in the lungs.

What conditions can cause a cough?

A number of common conditions can cause a cough, including the common cold, the flu, hay fever, and asthma. Other conditions include:

  • Laryngitis – an inflammation of the voice box or vocal cords that causes a hoarse voice
  • Sinusitis – an inflammation of the sinuses that causes pain in the cheekbones and forehead
  • Whooping cough – this is caused by a bacterial infection and can cause a cough with a distinctive whooping sound
  • Bronchitis – an inflammation of the airways in the lungs that can be acute or chronic
  • Pneumonia – an inflammation of the tissue in the lungs usually caused by a bacterial infection
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) – a chronic lung condition that causes breathing difficulties
  • Gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD) – a condition where acid from the stomach leaks up into the oesophagus

When should I speak to a doctor about my cough?

Usually you don’t need to speak to a doctor about a cough. However, there are some circumstances in which a cough could indicate a more serious condition such as tuberculosis, heart failure, blood clots on the lung or lung cancer. Therefore, it’s important to speak to a doctor if:

  • Your cough has lasted longer than three weeks
  • Your cough is very severe or is getting worse
  • You have chest pain
  • You’ve lost weight unexpectedly
  • You have pain and swelling on the sides of your neck
  • You’re finding it hard to breathe
  • You have a weakened immune system
  • You’re coughing up blood – you should see a doctor urgently in this case

If you’d like to speak to a doctor online, you can make an appointment with Doctor Care Anywhere.

How is a cough treated?

Normally you can treat a cough at home without needing medical treatment. While you’re recovering you should get lots of rest and drink plenty of fluids. A good home remedy for a cough is hot water with lemon and honey.

You can also use pharmacy treatments such as throat lozenges and cough syrups, however these won’t make your cough go away – they will simply help to soothe the pain and discomfort that the cough is causing.

If your cough is severe and requires medical attention from a doctor you will need to be examined and may need some tests before you start receiving treatment. Your doctor may want to take a sample of mucus that you’ve been coughing up, or send you to have an X-ray, a test on your lungs, or an allergy test.

Treatments for a persistent cough vary depending upon the cause:

  • Asthma – you may need to change your asthma medication
  • Allergies – you might need to be more careful around your allergy triggers, and take antihistamines more regularly
  • Bacterial infection – you might need a prescription for antibiotics to help clear up the infection
  • GORD – you might find that taking antacids and other stomach medications helps ease your symptoms
  • COPD – you might need inhalers or steroids to open your airways

You should try and quit smoking, especially if you think this is the key cause of your cough.

Content reviewed by Jemma Shafier, a Doctor Care Anywhere GP