When should you go to the doctor for a cough?

Cold, allergies, asthma: there are plenty of possible causes for coughs. However in rarer cases, cough can be a sign of a more serious pathology and you need to visit a doctor for further examinations.


But when to worry about a cough?



Doctors first classify coughs regarding their duration. If the cough lasts less than three weeks, it is considered an acute cough. Two to three weeks is a normal duration for a cough. Even if you had a cold or flu and all the other symptoms disappeared, the cough can still say for one week or two. Coughing is a natural process through which your body clears secretions from your lungs in order to prevent infection as explained by the Mayo Clinic. There is so nothing unusual is a cough lasting even after you recovered as your body just makes sure to be perfectly cleared.



Woman in my bed, with a tissue on her nose, holding her head

Source: Remedies for Me



If you have had a cough more than three weeks, it is considered persistent by the NHS and you should then consult to find out what is causing this cough.


If you have had a cough for two weeks, it is probably not necessary to visit a doctor, except if your cough is unusual or you experience other symptoms as well.


What type of cough do you have?



There are two main types of coughs. A wet generates phlegm while a dry cough does not. A wet cough means your body is ejecting fluids most likely found in the lower respiratory tract (windpipe and lungs) while a dry cough comes more often from the nose or throat.


The most important to check is not that much if your cough is dry or wet but the other symptoms you can have.


If your cough gets worse quickly, if you cough blood or if you experience wheezing, you should consult immediately. If you have chest pain, you are losing weight for no apparent reason, you find it hard to breath or the side of your neck is swollen and painful, you should go see a doctor as well according to the NHS.

If your immune system is weakened by a condition or a treatment, see a GP immediately.


What are the main causes for coughs?


The most common causes for coughs are colds and flu. Other causes can be:


  • - Allergies such as hay fever
  • - Asthma (especially if you mostly cough at night)
  • - Acid reflux (that irritate your throat)
  • - Postnasal drip (extra mucus dripping down the back of your throat from your sinuses)
  • - Smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke
  • - Infections such as bronchitis or pneumonia or even whooping cough


Much more rarely, coughs can be signs of a lung cancer.


It is primordial that the GP identifies the cause of the cough. Indeed, some conditions such as pneumonia can be fatal if not treated quickly.


What can a GP do?



The GP will probably carry out some tests in order to give a diagnosis. The most common ones are: examining a sample of mucus, order an allergy test, a test to check the functioning or your lungs or a chest X-ray.


Chest x-rays are very common and absolutely safe. You do not need to prepare in any way but let the radiologist know if you think you are pregnant, as fetus must not be exposed to radiation.

The x-ray will help diagnose pneumonia, lung cancer or the presence of fluid around the lungs.



Hands holding a tablet with a chest x ray on it

Source: Healthline



If needed, the GP can refer you to a specialist such as a ENT (Ear-nose-throat).


What treatments can I get?



It all depends on what type of cough you have and what causes it.
If you cough because of a cold or flu and it prevents you from sleeping at night then you should get some cough medicine, eventually with codeine. Be careful not to take too much of those as they are not without risk. If you suffer from allergies or post-nasal drips, antihistamines is the most likely solution. People having asthma need to use an inhaler and people with reflux should get over the counter antacid medicine.

If you suffer from pneumonia, the solution is antibiotics as the infection comes from bacteria. Antibiotics are useless if a virus causes your condition.
In case of bronchitis, the best way to recover is simply to rest and drink a lot of fluids. If it really lasts, some medication can help clear your airway but you should consult a GP again. If you are not registered with a NHS GP, you can consult a private GP.


You can also take care of your cough at home (at least if the cough does not last or does not present any unusual symptoms). Avoid smoking and drink lots of fluids, especially hot lemon and honey in order to sooth your throat.



Julia from Findoc