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.
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.
Several common conditions can cause a cough, including the common cold, the flu, hay fever, and asthma. Other conditions include:
Usually, you don’t need to speak to a clinician 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 GP or ANP if:
If you’d like to speak to a GP or ANP online, you can make an appointment with Doctor Care Anywhere.
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:
If you're a smoker you should try and stop, especially if you think it is the key cause of your cough.
Content reviewed by Jemma Shafier, a Doctor Care Anywhere GP