Cough

Most coughs go away on their own within 3 weeks. There's usually no need to see a GP.

How you can treat a cough yourself

There are things you can do to help treat a cough. You should:

  • rest
  • drink plenty of fluids
  • drink hot lemon with honey (not suitable for babies)

Hot lemon with honey has a similar effect as cough medicines.

How to make hot lemon with honey at home

  • squeeze half a lemon into a mug of boiled water
  • add 1 to 2 teaspoons of honey
  • drink while still warm (don't give hot drinks to small children)

A pharmacist can help with a cough

Speak to your pharmacist if you have a cough. They can give you advice or suggest treatments to help you cough less, like cough syrups and lozenges. These won’t get rid of the cough.

Some cough medicines shouldn’t be given to children under 12.

When to see your GP

You should see your GP if:

  • you've had a cough for more than 3 weeks (persistent cough)
  • your cough is very bad or quickly gets worse, for example – you have a hacking cough or can't stop coughing
  • you have chest pain
  • you're losing weight for no reason
  • the side of your neck feels swollen and painful (swollen glands)
  • you find it hard to breathe
  • you have a weakened immune system, for example because of chemotherapy or diabetes

See your GP urgently if you're coughing up blood.

To find out what's causing your cough your GP might:

  • take a sample of any mucus you might be coughing up
  • order an X-ray, allergy test, or test to see how well your lungs work
  • refer you to hospital to see a specialist, but this is very rare

What causes coughs

The likely cause of a cough changes, depending on how long you have had the symptom.

Cough for less than 3 weeks (acute cough) is most commonly caused by a viral infection of the upper airways, that causes a cold or flu

Other causes include:

  • bronchitis - an infection of the main airways of the lungs (bronchi), causing them to become irritated and inflamed-  it bronchitis can be caused by either a virus or bacteria, although viral bronchitis is much more common
  • pneumonia - a swelling (inflammation) of the tissue in one or both of your lungs - it's usually caused by an infection with a germ (bacterium or virus)
  • asthma that is getting worse - asthma is a common long-term condition that can cause coughing, wheezing, chest tightness and breathlessness
  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease that is getting worse (COPD) - COPD is a lung condition that causes breathing problems

Cough lasting 3-8 weeks (sub-acute cough) is often caused by the airways being left over sensitive following an infection, including:

  • pneumonia and other chest infections
  • cough following pertussis (whooping cough)  - a highly contagious bacterial chest infection-  it causes repeated coughing bouts and can make babies and young children in particular very ill

Cough lasting more than 8 weeks (chronic cough) is commonly caused by exposure to cigarette smoke (either actively or passively).

Other causes include:

  • hay fever -  a common allergic reaction to pollen -  it is a common cause of allergic irritation of the nose (allergic rhinitis)
  • medication - angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors reduce blood pressure by relaxing your blood vessels (common examples are enalapril, lisinopril, perindopril and ramipril) - the most common side effect is a persistent dry cough
  • upper airway cough syndrome (previously known as post-nasal drip syndrome) - apart from a chronic cough, there are abnormal sensations arising from the throat – for example, you may experience a sensation of something being stuck in the throat
  • asthma that is not well controlled
  • COPD that is not well controlled
  • gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD) - a common condition, where acid from the stomach leaks up into the oesophagus (gullet) - GORD causes symptoms such as heartburn and an unpleasant taste in the back of the mouth

Less common causes of all types of cough include:

  • achalasia - a rare disorder of the food pipe (oesophagus) - this can make it difficult to swallow food and drink
  • lung cancer
  • inhaling food or other objects
  • bronchiectasis - a long-term condition where the airways of the lungs become permanently abnormally widened, with thickened walls -  this leads to a build-up of excess mucus that can make the lungs more vulnerable to infection
  • idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) - a condition in which the lungs become scarred and breathing becomes increasingly difficult
  • pneumothorax - partial collapse of your lung caused by a small tear in the lung surface, which allows air to become trapped in the space around your lungs
  • pulmonary embolism - a blockage in the pulmonary artery - this is the blood vessel that carries blood from the heart to the lungs (this blockage, usually a blood clot, is potentially life-threatening)
  • heart failure - where the heart is unable to pump blood around the body properly - this usually happens because the heart has become too weak or stiff (it can occur at any age, but is most common in older people)
  • neuroendocrine tumour in the lung may cause a cough

The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

For further information see terms and conditions.

This page was published November 2018

This page is due for review April 2021

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