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How Do I Know If My Cough Is Serious?

Reviewed on 10/29/2020

What Is a Cough?

Coughing is a symptom of many conditions, from autoimmune disease, to infection, to cancer and environmental factors. How serious the cough is depends on its severity, duration and the accompanying symptoms.
Coughing is a symptom of many conditions, from autoimmune disease, to infection, to cancer and environmental factors. How serious the cough is depends on its severity, duration and the accompanying symptoms.

A cough can be voluntary or involuntary, and it is the body’s way to help clear the airways of irritants and to prevent infection. Cough is not a disease in itself, but a symptom of an underlying medical condition.

A cough is categorized as acute, subacute, or chronic depending on how long it lasts.

  • Acute coughs last less than three weeks 
  • Subacute coughs last three to eight weeks and remain after the initial cold or respiratory infection is over
  • Chronic coughs last more than eight weeks 

What Are Other Symptoms Seen With Cough?

A cough may be accompanied by other cold symptoms, including:

See a doctor immediately if you experience the following symptoms accompanying a cough because it may be serious:

  • Difficulty breathing/shortness of breath
  • Shallow, rapid breathing
  • Wheezing
  • Chest pain
  • Fever
  • Coughing up blood or yellow or green phlegm
  • Coughing so hard you vomit
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Cough lasts more than 8 weeks
  • Fainting 
  • Swelling of feet or ankles

What Causes Cough?

Causes of cough include:

How Is Cough Diagnosed?

Cough is diagnosed with a history and physical exam. Tests may be used to help diagnose the cause of the cough. 

SLIDESHOW

Cold and Flu: Finding Relief for Your Cough  See Slideshow

What Is the Treatment for Cough?

Treatment of cough depends on the cause and whether the cough is acute or chronic. Treatment may include: 

If the cough is not serious, home remedies may help relieve symptoms, such as:

  • Staying hydrated
  • Inhaling steam in a shower or using a humidifier 
  • Gargling with warm saltwater 
  • Cough lozenges (lozenges are not recommended for young children; they can be a choking hazard)  
  • Don’t smoke
  • Avoiding allergens such as pollen, dust, animals, or mold 
  • Avoiding inhaled irritants such as smoke, dust, and other pollutants
  • For GERD: Avoiding foods that increase reflux, avoiding meals before lying down, elevating the head while sleeping

How Do You Prevent Cough?

To prevent cough:

  • Don't smoke
  • Manage chronic conditions that may cause cough such as asthma, postnasal drip, or GERD 
  • Avoid people who are sick with the cold, flu, COVID, bronchitis, or pneumonia
  • Get the whooping cough (pertussis) vaccine
  • Eat fruit
    • Research suggests diets high in fruit fiber and flavonoids may prevent chronic productive cough

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Reviewed on 10/29/2020
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