From niggly, dry coughs to a persistent hacking, here’s what you need to know about common cough symptoms

Whether you’ve come down with a cold, the flu or are recovering from COVID-19, coughing is a common symptom that can often linger even after recovering from an illness. Usually, a cough will clear on its own and is rarely a sign of something more serious.

Why do we cough?

Coughing is an automatic reaction performed by the body to help try and clear your airways of any mucus or irritants, such as dust or smoke. The action forces air up and out of your lower airways (your lungs) and upper airways (your windpipe, nose and mouth).  

A dry cough is tickly and doesn’t produce any phlegm (a thick mucus), whereas a chesty cough produces phlegm to help clear your airways.

What causes a cough?

The most common cause of a cough is a viral infection (virus), such as a common cold or the flu. This type of infection can affect anyone, and coughs are an extremely common symptom.

If your cough is caused by a virus, you might have other symptoms such as a runny nose, sneezing or a sore throat.

Other common causes of a cough include:

• Smoking

• Heartburn (acid reflux)

• Allergies (such as hay fever)

• Mucus dripping down the back of the nose (postnasal drip or sinusitis)

• Infections (such as bronchitis)

Most coughs will clear up on their own within three to four weeks.

Should I be worried about constant coughing?

Usually, there’s no need to see a GP when you have a cough, as it should clear on its own without treatment after three to four weeks.

However, a persistent cough that sticks around for longer than three weeks could be a sign of an underlying condition.

Causes of a persistent cough include:

• Long term respiratory tract infections, like chronic bronchitis

• Asthma

• Smoking

• Bronchiectasis (where the airways of the lungs become abnormally widened)

• Gastro-oesophical reflux disease (GORD) (where the throat becomes irritated by leaking stomach acid)

• Certain prescribed medicines (please speak to your GP if you believe your prescription may be causing a persistent cough)

A persistent cough can be a symptom of a more serious condition, such as lung cancer or heart failure, although this is very rare.

What can a pharmacist help with?

You can speak to your pharmacist for information about coughs and advice on treatments. You can ask them about:

• Cough syrups

• Cough sweets or drops

• Cough medicines (some cough medicines should not be given to children under 12)

Cough medicines and remedies won’t stop your cough but may help you cough less. Always read the label.

When to see a GP

Seek further advice from your GP if:

• You’ve had a cough for more than three weeks

• Your cough is very bad or gets worse quickly (you have a hacking cough or can’t stop coughing)

• You feel very unwell

• You have chest pain

• You’re losing weight for no reason

• The side of your neck feels swollen and painful

• You’re finding it hard to breathe

• You have a weakened immune system (for example, because of chemotherapy or diabetes)

See a GP urgently or call 111 if you’re coughing up blood.

To find out what’s causing your cough, during your appointment your GP may take a sample of any mucus you’re coughing up, order an X-ray or allergy test or, in rare cases, refer you to a hospital to see a specialist.

How to ease a cough

A short-term cough (caused by a viral infection) doesn’t always need treatment as it will likely get better on its own. However, living with a cough can be irritating and there are small things you can do to help ease any discomfort:

• Rest

• Drink plenty of fluids

• Try to stay at home and avoid contact with others if you’re feeling unwell

• Try paracetamol or ibuprofen, if suitable for you, to treat any pain (always read the label).

• Make a hot lemon and honey drink

While there is no sure way to stop you coughing, addressing the underlying cause of a persistent cough is the best way to treat it. You should also avoid smoking and avoid dusty or smoky places.