How to Diagnose and Treat a Cough

There are several different types of coughs. Each has distinct characteristics that we can use to help identify its cause.

Home treatments may be used for an uncomplicated cough, but you will need to know when to see a healthcare provider. Noting any other other symptoms you may have will be important to help them find a diagnosis.

In this article, you'll learn about the types of coughs you may experience and how to treat them with over-the-counter medications—and when it may be time to go to the doctor.

Common Causes of Constant Coughing
Verywell / JR Bee

What Cough Symptoms Tell You

A cough may be described as being dry (non-productive) or wet (productive). With a wet cough, you produce mucus and/or sputum. Even the way a cough sounds can give us a pretty good clue as to what is going on.

Accompanying Symptoms of a Cough

To further establish the cause of a cough, healthcare providers look at not only the cough but the accompanying symptoms as well. Together, they paint a clearer portrait of the illness. It is the totality of symptoms that will suggest to healthcare providers which tests are needed to confirm the cause and direct treatment. Examples include:

  • A cough accompanied by fever and chest pain may indicate pneumonia.
  • A cough accompanied by head congestion, fever, shivers, and body aches are classic features of the flu.
  • A persistent cough with wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness are symptoms associated with COPD.
  • A dry cough at night accompanied by bad breath, hoarseness, and a sudden increase in saliva would suggest to a healthcare provider you have GERD.
  • A bloody cough accompanied by fever, night sweats, and weight loss may be suggestive of tuberculosis.

When meeting with a healthcare provider, be sure to list all the symptoms you are experiencing, no matter how minor and vague they may seem.

Choosing the Right Cough Medication

When treating an uncomplicated cough, we often head to the pharmacy for an over-the-counter remedy. There are two categories of cough medications you might choose, called expectorants and suppressants. They work in different ways. Here are the reasons why you might take each one:

  • Expectorants are designed to help bring up mucus when you cannot entirely clear the congestion with a cough.
  • Suppressants relax the cough reflex and are helpful when a cough is starting to cause pain. Suppressants work better for some people than others and are typically recommended at night to help you sleep. 

If you have a productive cough, it is best not to take medications that suppress it. Coughing is the body's normal reaction to any foreign object in the lungs, including dust and mucus.

If you have chest congestion, coughing will help clear the lungs, allowing you to heal more quickly. Suppressing it can lead to a worsening of symptoms and the development of pneumonia.

Other Ways to Help Treat a Cough

A humidifier is a great way to help relieve coughing and break up congestion. This is especially helpful when children have croup. Alternately, you can take a steamy shower or bath for a similar, though shorter-term, effect. While humidifiers are handy to have around, be sure to clean them regularly to prevent the growth of bacteria and mildew.

Here are other simple ways to treat a cough:

  • If a cough is related to an allergy, an oral antihistamine ​will often help. In addition, do your best to avoid allergy triggers that may instigate or worsen an attack. 
  • Do not add further inflammation to the lungs by smoking. If your cough is related to COPD or any other chronic respiratory condition, it’s not enough just to cut back. You will need to stop.
  • Menthol lozenges can help numb the back of the throat, while hot tea with honey often has a soothing effect on a cough. If your cough is related to GERD, avoid peppermint tea, which may increase acid reflux.
  • Keep yourself hydrated. Dehydration only exacerbates a cough.

When to See a Healthcare Provider About a Cough

Most uncomplicated coughs due to cold or flu can be treated at home. There are times, however, when a persistent or severe cough warrants a visit to your healthcare provider. Generally speaking, you should see a healthcare provider if:

  • You have a cough that has lasts longer than a week.
  • Your cough is extremely painful.
  • You are coughing up blood.
  • You have a persistent fever of 100 F (38 C) or higher.
  • You are persistently coughing up green mucus (briefly producing green mucus is not a cause for concern).
  • You have shortness of breath, wheezing, or chest tightness.
  • You have a history of heart problems.
  • Your cough is accompanied by night sweats.
  • You think your child has croup.

Go to the emergency room immediately if you are coughing up pink, frothy mucus or your child is choking or having trouble breathing or swallowing.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Cleveland Clinic. Croup. Reviewed on September 17, 2019.

  2. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. COPD.

  3. Centers for Disease Control. Tuberculosis (TB). Reviewed on March 17, 2016.

  4. Jarosz M, Taraszewska A. Risk factors for gastroesophageal reflux disease: the role of diet. Prz Gastroenterol. 2014;9(5):297-301. doi: 10.5114/pg.2014.46166

Additional Reading

By Kristina Duda, RN
Kristina Duda, BSN, RN, CPN, has been working in healthcare since 2002. She specializes in pediatrics and disease and infection prevention.