A cough occurs when the lungs or airways become irritated. The most common cause of a cough is the common cold, which does not usually require medical attention.
However, coughs that occur with other symptoms, such as dizziness, may require a trip to doctor. This is particularly important with more serious symptoms, such as coughing up blood.
This article will discuss when to see a doctor about a cough, as well as some possible causes of a persistent cough.
When to get a cough checked out
A person should seek medical attention for a subacute or chronic cough.
Different types of cough vary in how long they last. For example:
- acute coughs last less than 3 weeks
- subacute coughs last 3–8 weeks
- chronic coughs last over 8 weeks
Each cough can have a different cause, and some may require medical attention. Most acute coughs have less serious causes, such as a cold. It is not necessary to see a doctor in these cases.
However, subacute and chronic coughs could be a sign of something more serious that may require medical attention.
It is also important to see a doctor if the cough occurs with other, more serious symptoms, such as:
- coughing up blood
- shortness of breath
- unexplained weight loss
Below, we discuss several possible causes of a cough, as well as the other symptoms they may cause.
The common cold
A common cold is one of the most common causes of an acute cough. Colds are the result of a respiratory virus, the most common being rhinovirus. Other symptoms of a cold can include:
It is not necessary to see a doctor for a cold, as the symptoms will usually go away on their own within a few days.
However, it is important to see a doctor if symptoms persist for longer than 10 days or become severe.
Bronchitis occurs when the airways in the lungs become inflamed. Acute bronchitis lasts for a few days or weeks, but chronic bronchitis can persist for months.
Both types of bronchitis cause a cough that brings some mucus up with it. Other symptoms of bronchitis include:
- sore throat
- runny or stuffy nose
- body aches
It is possible to treat most cases of acute bronchitis at home with rest and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen.
Symptoms that last for longer than a couple of weeks could indicate chronic bronchitis, and this will require a trip to the doctor.
Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs. It causes the small air sacs in the lung, or alveoli, to become inflamed and fill with fluid. This makes it harder for the lungs to transfer oxygen to the bloodstream.
Pneumonia can cause a cough that brings up mucus. It may also lead to:
- shortness of breath
- chest pain
- loss of appetite
- nausea and vomiting
People with pneumonia should see a doctor for treatment. The condition can become severe in older people and may require hospitalization.
A doctor can help find the right treatment for asthma.
Asthma is a chronic lung disease that makes it harder to breathe. In some people, certain triggers can bring on bouts of asthma, such as exposure to irritants in the environment. It can cause frequent coughing, especially at night.
Other symptoms of asthma include:
- shortness of breath
- chest tightness
It is important to see a doctor about asthma. They can help a person find the right treatment and identify any triggers of the condition.
Allergies occur as a result of the immune system overreacting to a harmless substance, such as pollen or dust. Coming into contact with these substances can cause a range of symptoms, including:
- stuffy or runny nose
- skin rashes
- sore eyes
In the most severe cases, allergies can cause anaphylaxis, which is the rapid and simultaneous onset of several symptoms. Anaphylaxis can quickly become severe and requires immediate medical attention.
In most cases, allergies do not have a cure. The most effective way to deal with an allergy is to avoid triggers.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a chronic condition wherein stomach acid reaches the esophagus, which is the tube that carries food and liquids from the mouth to the stomach.
The most common symptom is heartburn, or a burning sensation in the throat that can get worse when lying down. Other symptoms of GERD include:
- bad breath
- chest pain
- problems swallowing
- breathing difficulties
There is no cure for GERD, but a doctor can make lifestyle recommendations that may help control symptoms. There are also medications available that can reduce discomfort.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a type of lung disease that affects breathing. Smoking tobacco is the main cause of COPD.
People with COPD can develop other conditions that worsen their symptoms, such as obstructive bronchiolitis or emphysema.
Breathing difficulties, including shortness of breath and difficulty exhaling, are the main symptoms of COPD.
Other symptoms may include:
- frequent coughing
- excess mucus
It is vital to see a doctor about COPD. Treatment will primarily involve giving up smoking and avoiding exposure to smoke or other irritants.
In more serious cases, an oxygen tank may be necessary to help support the lungs.
The outlook for a cough that will not go away depends on its cause. A cold can go away with no treatment within 7–10 days. However, other causes are lifelong conditions that may require ongoing management, such as GERD.
It is best to see a doctor if the cough persists for longer than 3 weeks or occurs with other, more serious symptoms, such as coughing up blood.