Coughing is a reflex action which clears the airways in your throat. It can be annoying and, if it’s a long-term, persistent (chronic) cough, can be tiring.

By Wallace Health I Medically reviewed by Adrian Roberts.
Page last reviewed: October 2018 I Next review due: October 2023

Coughing: a summary

Coughing is a common complaint and can affect anyone. However, women are more likely to develop a persistent cough as their cough reflexes are more sensitive than men’s.

Coughing is rarely a symptom of a serious health condition and will usually clear up within three weeks. Coughing can usually be relieved with simple cough remedies or medical treatment for any underlying condition.

What causes coughing?

In most cases, a short-term (acute) cough is caused by an infection of the upper respiratory tract, such as a cold or flu.

Coughing can also be caused by:

  • A lower respiratory tract infection, such as acute bronchitis or pneumonia
  • An allergy – perhaps to a pet or pollen (hay fever), which can sometimes trigger a dry cough
  • Irritation by dust or smoke, including cigarette smoke
  • A flare-up of a condition affecting your airways, such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or chronic bronchitis
  • Childhood illnesses such as whooping cough and croup

A chronic, persistent cough is coughing that lasts for eight weeks or longer. This can be caused by:

  • Smoking cigarettes
  • Postnasal drip – when mucus from your nose trickles down your throat
  • Side effects of some high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease medications
  • Gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD) - frequent heartburn can cause coughing

Very occasionally, persistent coughing is a symptom of a serious health condition, such as lung cancer or heart failure.

Talk to your doctor if you're concerned about your cough symptoms

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Getting a diagnosis for coughing

Although coughing is usually harmless, see your GP as soon as possible if you’re also:

Otherwise, you should see your GP if you’ve been coughing for over three weeks and there’s no sign of improvement. Your GP will ask you about the duration, frequency and severity of your coughing and any other symptoms you’ve noticed. They may take a sample of mucus to test for infections.

If they suspect an underlying cause, your GP may refer you for investigations, such as:

  • Lung function tests – to check your breathing
  • A CT scan or X-ray – to check your lungs
  • Bronchoscopy – examining your lungs and airways with a tiny camera attached to a thin flexible tube
  • Rhinoscopy - examining your nasal passages with a tiny camera attached to a thin flexible tube

Your GP may refer you to a consultant for assessment, such as an ear, nose and throat consultant or a gastroenterologist.

Cough remedies and treatment

You can relieve an acute cough with simple cough remedies. As well as resting as much as possible, you should:

  • Drink lots of fluids, including hot lemon with honey (this remedy shouldn’t be given to babies)
  • Soothe irritation in your throat or a dry cough with lozenges
  • Take over-the-counter pain relief such as paracetamol or ibuprofen if required
  • Avoid dusty or smoky atmospheres

If an underlying condition is responsible for your chronic coughing, the treatment your doctor recommends will depend on your diagnosis.

This may involve taking medications for your condition, such as:

  • Antibiotics for an infection
  • Antacids to reduce stomach acid if you have GORD
  • Antihistamines for an allergy

Your doctor may also recommend changing medication if they believe that’s causing your cough. If your coughing is linked to smoking cigarettes, your doctor will be able to suggest ways you can stop.