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A cough is a reflex action to clear your airways of mucus and irritants such as dust or smoke. It's rarely a sign of anything serious.
A "dry cough" means it's tickly and doesn't produce any phlegm (thick mucus). A "chesty cough" means phlegm is produced to help clear your airways.
Most coughs clear up within three weeks and don't require any treatment. For more persistent coughs, it's a good idea to see your doctor so they can investigate the cause.
Some of the main causes of short-term (acute) and persistent (chronic) coughs are outlined below.
Common causes of a short-term cough include:
In rare cases, a short-term cough may be the first sign of a health condition that causes a persistent cough.
A persistent cough may be caused by:
Causes of coughs that are more common in children than adults include:
Occasionally, a persistent cough in a child can be a sign of a serious long-term condition, such as cystic fibrosis.
There's usually no need to see your doctor if you or your child have a mild cough for a week or two. However, you should seek medical advice if:
If your doctor is unsure what's causing your cough, they may refer you to a hospital specialist for an assessment. They may also request some tests, such as a chest X-ray, allergy tests, breathing tests, and an analysis of a sample of your phlegm to check for infection.
Treatment isn't always necessary for mild, short-term coughs because it's likely to be a viral infection that will get better on its own within a few weeks. You can look after yourself at home by resting, drinking plenty of fluids, and taking painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen.
Although some people find them helpful, medicines that claim to suppress your cough or stop you bringing up phlegm are not usually recommended. This is because there's little evidence to suggest they're any more effective than simple home remedies, and they're not suitable for everyone.
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) recommends that over-the-counter cough and cold medicines shouldn't be given to children under the age of six. Children aged 6 to 12 should only use them on the advice of a doctor or pharmacist.
A homemade remedy containing honey and lemon is likely to be just as useful and safer to take. Honey shouldn't be given to babies under the age of one because of the risk of infant botulism .
If your cough has a specific cause, treating this may help. For example:
If you smoke, quitting is also likely to help improve your cough.
Most coughs are caused by viral infections and usually clear up on their own.
Most people with a cough have a respiratory tract infection caused by a virus. This includes:
Possible non-infectious causes of an acute cough include:
In rare cases it may be the first sign of a health condition causing a chronic (long-term) cough (see below).
A persistent cough in adults may be caused by:
Coughs are usually classified by doctors according to how long they last:
There's no quick way of getting rid of a cough that's caused by a viral infection. It will usually clear up after your immune system has fought off the virus.
If there is an underlying condition causing a cough, this will need specific treatment.
The simplest and cheapest way to treat a short-term cough may be a homemade cough remedy containing honey and lemon. The honey is a demulcent, which means it coats the throat and relieves the irritation that causes coughing.
There's little evidence to suggest cough medicines actually work, although some ingredients may help treat symptoms associated with a cough, such as a blocked nose or fever.
Some contain paracetamol, so don't take more than the recommended dosage. Cough medicines should never be taken for more than two weeks.
They can be used for any type of cough and are generally safe, but diabetics should note that they're usually sugar-based.
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has recommended that over-the-counter cough and cold medicines shouldn't be given to children under the age of six.
The MHRA is the government body responsible for ensuring medicines are safe and effective.
The agency has made this recommendation because it feels there's a potential risk of these medicines causing unpleasant side effects, such as allergic reactions, sleep problems or hallucinations (seeing and hearing things that aren't real). These would outweigh any benefit provided by the medicines.
Instead, give your child a warm drink of lemon and honey or a simple cough syrup that contains glycerol or honey. However, honey shouldn't be given to babies under the age of one, due to the risk of infant botulism.
Cough suppressants, such as pholcodine, dextromethorphan and antihistamines, act on the brain to hold back the cough reflex. They're used for dry coughs only.
Check with your doctor or pharmacist before taking cough suppressants.
Expectorants help bring phlegm up so that coughing is easier, which may help chesty coughs. They include:
These compounds are all found in small quantities in cough mixtures, so they're unlikely to have any side effects or interact with other medicines.
If you have a cough caused by smoking you'll quickly start to notice the benefits of quitting. Three to nine months after you stop smoking, your breathing will have improved, and you will no longer have a cough or wheeze.
Giving up smoking also increases your chances of living a longer and healthier life. Other health benefits include:
Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.