A cough is a reflex action to clear your airways of mucus and irritants such as dust or smoke. It's rarely a sign of anything serious.
Most coughs clear up within 3 weeks and don't require any treatment.
A dry cough means it's tickly and doesn't produce any phlegm (thick mucus). A chesty cough means phlegm is produced to help clear your airways.
Non-urgent advice: Speak to a pharmacist for:
- advice about coughs
- cough treatments
Non-urgent advice: Speak to a GP if:
- you've had a cough for more than 3 weeks
- your cough is particularly severe
- you cough up blood
- you experience shortness of breath, breathing difficulties or chest pain
- you have any other worrying symptoms, such as unexplained weight loss, a persistent change in your voice, or lumps or swellings in your neck
If your GP is unsure what's causing your cough, they may refer you to a hospital specialist for an assessment. They may also request some tests, such as a chest X-ray, allergy tests, breathing tests, and an analysis of a sample of your phlegm to check for infection.
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Common causes of a short-term cough include:
- an upper respiratory tract infection (URTI) that affects the throat, windpipe or sinuses – examples are a cold, flu, laryngitis, sinusitis or whooping cough
- a lower respiratory tract infection (LRTI) that affects your lungs or lower airways – examples are acute bronchitis or pneumonia
- an allergy, such as allergic rhinitis or hay fever
- a flare-up of a long-term condition such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or chronic bronchitis
- inhaled dust or smoke
In rare cases, a short-term cough may be the first sign of a health condition that causes a persistent cough.
A persistent cough may be caused by:
- a long-term respiratory tract infection, such as chronic bronchitis
- asthma – this also usually causes other symptoms, such as wheezing, chest tightness and shortness of breath
- an allergy
- smoking – a smoker's cough can also be a symptom of COPD
- bronchiectasis – where the airways of the lungs become abnormally widened
- postnasal drip – mucus dripping down the throat from the back of the nose, caused by a condition such as rhinitis or sinusitis
- gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD) – where the throat becomes irritated by leaking stomach acid
- a prescribed medicine, such as an angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitor (ACE inhibitor), which is used to treat high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease
In most cases, a doctor won't worry whether a cough is dry or chesty, but will need to know if you are producing much more or darker phlegm than usual.
Coughs in children
Coughs in children often have similar causes to those mentioned above. For example, respiratory tract infections, asthma and GORD can all affect children.
Causes of coughs that are more common in children than adults include:
- bronchiolitis – a mild respiratory tract infection that usually causes cold-like symptoms
- croup – this causes a distinctive barking cough and a harsh sound known as stridor when the child breathes in
- whooping cough – look out for symptoms such as intense, hacking bouts of coughing, vomiting, and a 'whoop' sound with each sharp intake of breath after coughing
Occasionally, a persistent cough in a child can be a sign of a serious long-term condition, such as cystic fibrosis.
Treatment isn't always necessary for short-term coughs because it's likely to be a viral infection that will get better on its own within a few weeks.
- drink plenty of fluids
- take painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen
Cough medicines and remedies
Although some people find them helpful, medicines that claim to suppress your cough or stop you bringing up phlegm are not usually recommended. This is because there's little evidence to suggest they're any better than simple home remedies, and they're not suitable for everyone.
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) recommends that over-the-counter cough and cold medicines shouldn't be given to children under the age of six. Children aged 6 to 12 should only use them on the advice of a pharmacist or doctor.
A homemade remedy containing honey and lemon is likely to be just as useful and safer to take. Honey shouldn't be given to babies under the age of one because of the risk of infant botulism.
Treating the underlying cause
If your cough has a specific cause, treating this may help. For example:
- asthma can be treated with inhaled steroids to reduce inflammation in your airways
- allergies can be treated by avoiding things you're allergic to and taking antihistamines to dampen down your allergic reactions
- bacterial infections can be treated with antibiotics
- GORD can be treated with antacids to neutralise your stomach acid and medication to reduce the amount of acid your stomach produces
- COPD can be treated with bronchodilators to widen your airways
If you smoke, quitting is also likely to help improve your cough. Read more about stopping smoking.
Urgent advice: Contact your GP or, if your GP's closed, phone 111 if your child:
- is under 3 months old and has a temperature of 38°C or above
- is older than 3 months and has a temperature of 39°C or above
- has fewer wet nappies or nappies that seem drier than usual or has a dry nappy for over 12 hours
- isn't getting better after a few days
- is taking less than half their usual amount during their last 2 or 3 feeds
If you're very concerned about your child trust your instincts and phone your GP or 111 for advice, or phone 999 in an emergency.