Have a Cough? Learn When It’s Time to Seek Medical Attention

by Jasmeet Singh Bhogal, MD, MBA, Regional Medical Director, MedStar PromptCare
March 15, 2019

Patients often ask us, “Why do I cough?” or wonder when a cough should require medical attention. Truth is, if you have existing medical conditions or have been coughing for many weeks, it might be time to see a doctor.

We typically use one of three categories to describe a cough, depending on how long it lasts:

  • Acute: Less than three weeks
  • Subacute: Between three and eight weeks
  • Chronic: More than eight weeks

We see people all the time who visit the hospital with coughs in all three categories. In most cases, we can determine the reason for their cough based on their symptoms, examination, and imaging tests, such as an X-ray, if necessary. Let’s discuss common causes of a cough and what treatment options exist.

When to See a Doctor for a Cough

As a general rule, you should see a doctor if you’ve had a cough for more than eight weeks. Prolonged coughing for that amount of time could be a sign of conditions such as post-nasal drip, acid reflux, or a side effect from certain high blood pressure medications. This could also be a sign of an underlying lung infection.

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Additionally, we typically suggest that you see a doctor if you have chest pain along with your cough, as there’s a chance you’ve suffered a rib fracture due to prolonged coughing. Other symptoms that you might experience with a cough that could signify an underlying condition, such as pneumonia, bronchitis, and more, include:

  • Body aches
  • Coughing up blood
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches

For someone with an existing condition such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a persistent cough or a change from the normal pattern of their cough could signify an acute worsening of their existing condition.

In more serious cases, if you’ve previously had a “smoker’s cough,” which is common in long-term smokers, and you are experiencing a new coughing pattern or a cough that’s worsening with additional symptoms, it might be a sign of a much serious condition such as lung cancer.

Effective Cough Treatments

If you have a cough due to a basic viral infection—which usually goes away on its own within a week or two—we typically recommend over-the-counter cough remedies to help relieve your symptoms, such as Guaifenesin, which you can purchase at local stores. Simple at-home treatment options can also be effective, such as:

  • Avoiding certain irritants: Pet and seasonal allergies can cause some individuals to develop a cough.
  • Consuming honey: This can help soothe some coughs. Do not give honey to babies less than one year old.
  • Having warm drinks: Fresh tea or warm water can help soothe the throat.
  • Staying hydrated: We recommend drinking between a half-gallon and gallon of water each day.

For more severe coughs, prescription medications can be prescribed. Furthermore, if you are diagnosed with a more serious condition, a variety of treatment options exist, including antibiotics. Like with most conditions, the sooner you are treated, the better your outcome will likely be. Make sure to speak to your doctor to learn which treatments might be best for you.

Coughs in Children

If you have children, there’s a good chance they have had a cough. In most cases, the cough is because of a simple viral infection that goes away on its own in a week or so. However, it’s important to be sure they aren’t experiencing any symptoms that they can’t communicate to us, such as chest pain or shortness of breath, which can be a sign of croup, an upper-airway infection that blocks breathing and causes children to have a cough that sounds like a dog’s bark.

You can check for these symptoms by examining your child’s chest and ensuring they’re inhaling and exhaling normally. If they’re not, they need to be seen by a doctor right away.

While a cough often seems like an everyday illness, it’s important to keep in mind when medical attention is likely necessary.

Have you or a loved been coughing for a prolonged period of time? Consider getting medical attention at a
MedStar PromptCare location near you.

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