When should you see a doctor for that cough?
Learn the difference between a cough that goes away on its own and a cough that needs medical attention. And find out just how long to wait before seeing a doctor or nurse.
The first step: When you or someone in your family starts hacking, consider whether the cough is wet or dry, says Jonathan Parsons, MD, who specializes in lung care at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
What’s the difference between wet and dry coughs? Dr. Parsons explains.
This type (also called a productive cough) produces mucus. Most of the time, wet coughs are related to infections of the upper respiratory tract or sinuses, and they tend to be short-lived, typically ending in 10 to 14 days.
The common cold, which peaks around this time of year, is one of the top causes of a wet cough. While several medications promise to treat cold-related symptoms, Dr. Parsons says they don’t shorten the time you’ll be coughing.
“If you go to the pharmacy or the grocery store, there are dozens of different over-the-counter options to try to treat the cough. The reality is that those coughs resolve on their own,” he says.
“You can get some medications that help relieve the symptoms, but it’s time and patience that allow the cough to go away.”
Simple tried-and-true hygiene habits help to prevent spread to other family members:
- Cover your mouth (not with your hand!) when you cough or sneeze
- Wash your hands regularly with soap and water
- Use antibacterial wipes to sanitize dining tables, kitchen counters and bathroom surfaces
- Avoid sharing kitchen utensils and hand towels
A dry cough doesn’t produce any mucus. Some of the most common chronic coughs, defined as lasting more than four weeks, fall into this category. These can be caused by:
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
Sometimes acid from the stomach goes all the way up to the patient’s voice box, irritating it.
Dr. Parsons says he sees the condition frequently, and patients typically start coughing when they lie down in bed. The painful cough will go away when the acid reflux is treated with medication.
- Post-nasal drip and allergies
Your cold, infection or allergies sometimes have the no-fun accompaniment of constant drainage on the back of your throat from your sinuses.
“This can lead to a nagging, persistent cough that goes on for quite some time,” Dr. Parsons says.
People with asthma might hear a sound similar to a whistle or a wheeze when they cough. With asthma, your airways become inflamed and swollen, causing shortness of breath.
Many people with asthma don’t realize they have it, says Dr. Parsons, whose primary clinical interest is treating asthma through the Ohio State Asthma Center. The condition is diagnosed easily with a lung function test.
A class of drugs used to treat high blood pressure called ACE inhibitors, which stands for angiotension-converting enzyme, is a well-known cause of dry, chronic cough as a side effect. The doctor could try an alternative ACE inhibitor or a different type of heart medication.
The bottom line on when to see a medical professional:
If your cough – wet or dry – is persistent for more than three to four weeks, get evaluated by a doctor or nurse, who might order a chest X-ray or lung function test.
What about kids? When should I take my child to a doctor for a cough?
The same advice applies to children. So, although it can be frustrating, parents should wait three to four weeks before calling the pediatrician, as long as the child is eating and sleeping well and doesn’t have a high fever.
An exception to waiting-it-out: whooping cough
The highly contagious bacterial infection, also called pertussis, has been more prevalent in recent years in children and adults.
Whooping cough symptoms
In the beginning, the infection has a similar effect as a normal cold, causing stuffy nose, body aches and coughing. After a few days, however, these symptoms can get worse, adding nausea, vomiting, persistent fever and a cough so strong it might be difficult to catch your breath or to sleep, Dr. Parsons explains. Children also tend to become grumpy.
If you experience this sharp worsening of symptoms and severe cough, it’s a good idea to see your doctor right away, he says. Pertussis can be treated with antibiotics.
Make a Cough Clinic appointment with Dr. Parsons or another pulmonologist.
Here's how Cough Clinic doctors can help with long-lasting coughs.