Dear doctor, I've had a stubborn cough for a while now. What can I do to get rid of it?

05 December 2017

I’ve had a stubborn cough for a while now and just can’t seem to shake it off. What can I do to get rid of it? Do I need to see my GP?

A cough is a reflex action to clear your airways of mucus and irritants such as dust or smoke. A "dry cough" means it's tickly and doesn't produce any phlegm (thick mucus), a “chesty cough" however, means phlegm is produced to help clear your airways.

Common causes of a short-term cough include:

  • An upper respiratory tract infection (URTI) that affects the throat, windpipe or sinuses, such as a cold, flu, laryngitis, sinusitis or whooping cough
  • A lower respiratory tract infection (LRTI) that affects your lungs or lower airways, such as acute bronchitis or pneumonia 
  • An allergy, such as allergic rhinitis or hay fever 
  • A flare-up of a long-term condition such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or chronic bronchitis 
  • Inhaled dust or smoke  

A persistent cough may be caused by:

  • A long-term respiratory tract infection, such as chronic bronchitis  
  • Asthma 
  • An allergy 
  • Smoking: a smoker's cough can also be a symptom of COPD
  • Bronchiectasis: where the airways of the lungs become abnormally widened
  • Postnasal drip: mucus dripping down the throat from the back of the nose
  • Gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD): where the throat becomes irritated by leaking stomach acid
  • Some prescribed medicine

Be aware of whooping cough and look out for symptoms such as: intense hacking bouts of coughing, vomiting, and a "whoop" sound with each sharp intake of breath after coughing. See your GP if you think you might have whooping cough.

Treatment isn't always necessary for mild, short-term coughs as it's likely to be a viral infection that will get better on its own within three weeks and doesn’t require any treatment. You can look after yourself at home by resting, drinking plenty of fluids, and taking painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen. There’s little evidence to suggest that cough medicines and remedies are any more effective than simple home remedies, and are not suitable for everyone.

You should seek medical advice if you've had a cough for more than three weeks; your cough is particularly severe or is getting worse; you cough up blood or experience shortness of breath, breathing difficulties or chest pain; you have any other worrying symptoms such as unexplained weight loss, a persistent change in your voice, or lumps or swellings in your neck.

Dr Zaid Hirmiz is a GP practising at Spire Portsmouth Hospital.


The content of this article is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the professional medical advice of your doctor or other health care professional.

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