Cough is one of the most common medical symptoms, causing as many as 30 million clinical visits per year. Though it can be annoying, uncomfortable, and sometimes painful, a cough is a natural reflex that helps your body defend itself against irritants.
There are many possible causes of a cough, and in most cases, a cough will resolve on its own. But if you’ve had a severe or persistent cough that hasn’t improved within two weeks, you should speak with a medical provider. It’s also a good idea to reach out to your healthcare provider if you’re experiencing specific symptoms alongside your cough, including chest pain or green or yellow phlegm.
When to See a Doctor for a Cough
In most cases, a cough will resolve on its own within a few weeks. But if your cough is causing you significant pain, discomfort, or has not improved within two weeks, you should reach out to your medical provider for further evaluation.
There are also other specific symptoms that warrant medical attention if they’re present in addition to a cough. These symptoms include:
- Chest pain
- Thick, green or yellow phlegm
- Shortness of breath
- A fever
- A headache
If you’re coughing up blood or dark sputum, seek emergency medical attention.
Common Causes of a Cough
A cough can be a symptom of many different medical conditions, some of which can be managed at home and some of which may need medical attention. Some of the most common causes of cough include:
- Viral upper respiratory infections: The common cold, the flu, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and COVID-19 can cause an acute cough, or a cough that usually goes away on its own within a few weeks. Importantly, a cough caused by COVID-19 is usually a dry or unproductive cough which can continue even after the infection has cleared.
- Bacterial infections: Pneumonia and whooping cough (pertussis) can both cause a cough.
- Bronchitis: Bronchitis occurs when the airways in the lungs become inflamed. A bronchitis cough can also produce mucus. Acute bronchitis can be a result of a viral (or occasionally bacterial) infection and usually causes a productive or wet cough that lasts weeks, and sometimes a month or longer. Chronic bronchitis is usually caused by chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which is most often caused by cigarette smoking.
- Acute sinusitis: Also known as acute rhinosinusitis, acute sinusitis is a common condition that causes inflammation of the lining of the paranasal sinuses.
- Asthma: Asthma, which can sometimes be confused with bronchitis, is a chronic condition that can cause the airways to become inflamed, inducing a cough, chest tightness, shortness of breath and wheezing.
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD): COPD is a respiratory disease caused by long-term exposure to cigarette smoke, fumes from burning fuel, or pollution. It can cause the airways to become inflamed and narrowed, resulting in an excess secretion of mucus that can make breathing difficult. Common symptoms of COPD include a chronic cough (that most often occurs in the morning), excessive mucus production, wheezing, and shortness of breath.
At-Home Cough Treatment
There are several at-home remedies that can help to soothe and treat a mild-to-moderate cough. Some common home cough treatments include:
- Cough drops
- Using a humidifier or breathing in steam
- Gargling warm salt water
- Drinking fluids, especially water, herbal tea, and soup
- Drinking tea with honey or eating a teaspoon of honey
- Taking an over-the-counter (OTC) cough medicine
Depending on the cause of your cough, your medical provider may recommend medical treatment to target the underlying condition. Recommend treatment options may include antibiotics, inhalers or short-acting beta agonists (SABA), oral corticosteroids, and others. Speaking with a medical provider is essential to diagnosing the cause of your cough and your recommended treatment plan.
Risks of Untreated Cough
The risk of an untreated cough will depend on the underlying cause of the cough. In many cases, a cough will get better on its own over a few days or weeks. However, if your cough is not improving, or you develop any concerning associated symptoms, it is important to see your healthcare provider as soon as possible to have a further evaluation and receive treatment.
How K Health Can Help
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Frequently Asked Questions
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.
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Confronting COVID-19-associated cough and the post-COVID syndrome: role of viral neurotropism, neuroinflammation, and neuroimmune responses (2021).