When to See a Doctor for a Cough

By Zina Semenovskaya, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
September 27, 2022

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:

If you’re coughing up blood or dark sputum, seek emergency medical attention. 

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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

Medical Treatment

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. 

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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

Did you know you can get affordable virtual primary care with K Health? Check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed, text with a healthcare provider in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and is based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are dry coughs a symptom of COVID-19?
Yes, a dry cough can be a symptom of a COVID-19 infection. However, not everyone with an active COVID-19 infection will have a dry cough.
Are the symptoms of COVID-19 similar to bronchitis?
Bronchitis can cause shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, fatigue, excess mucus production, and fever. COVID-19 can also cause coughing, fatigue, shortness of breath, and fever. However, a cough caused by COVID-19 is usually a dry, unproductive cough, while a cough caused by bronchitis will sometimes be productive (produce mucus). Covid-19 is a virus, and bronchitis is typically caused by viruses; both causes can lead to a cough that lasts several weeks or longer.
How long does the cough linger after COVID-19?
Unfortunately, a cough can linger for weeks or months after a COVID-19 infection. A cough that persists for months may be part of a collection of possible long-term effects referred to as long COVID.
Does everyone who has a COVID-19 get a cough?
Not everyone who has a COVID-19 infection will have a cough. However, a dry and non-productive cough can be a sign of a possible COVID-19 infection. If you have a dry cough and other COVID-19 symptoms, or have been recently exposed to someone with a confirmed or suspected COVID-19 infection, it’s important to isolate and get tested as soon as possible.
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.

Zina Semenovskaya, MD

Dr. Semenovskaya specializes in emergency medicine, and received her medical degree from Weill Cornell Medical College. She is currently the medical director at Remote Emergency Medicine Consulting, LLC and splits her time working clinically as an emergency medicine attending in California and Alaska. She is the first of our doctors to be fluent in Russian.