How to Diagnose and Treat a Cough

There are many different types of coughs. Each has distinct characteristics that we can use to help identify the cause and noting other symptoms will be important to help your healthcare provider find a diagnosis. Home treatments may be used for an uncomplicated cough, but you will need to know when to see the healthcare provider.

Common Causes of Constant Coughing
Verywell / JR Bee

What Cough Symptoms Tell You

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

  • A dry cough may be caused by an allergy, cold, flu, cough variant asthma, or the beginning of bronchitis.
  • A wet, productive cough could be the result of pneumonia, bronchitis, or the flu.
  • A wet, nonproductive cough may also suggest a cold, flu, or bronchitis.
  • A painful cough is frequently seen with pneumonia or bronchitis.
  • A seal barking sound when coughing is a strong indication of croup in children.
  • A chronic cough may be an indication of a condition like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or gastroesophageal reflux (GERD), or, in some cases, lung cancer.

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 the classic features of the flu.
  • A persistent cough with wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest tights are symptoms we would see 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 will often head to the pharmacy for an over-the-counter remedy. There are two categories of cough medications that you might choose, called expectorants and suppressants. The ways they work are different as well as why you take each one:

  • Expectorants are designed to help bring up mucus when you cannot clear the congestion with a cough. These are the most useful when you have a wet, non-productive 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 than 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 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 shut yourself into a steamy bathroom for the same 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. Also be sure to avoid any allergy trigger 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 coughing up yellow, tan, or green mucus.
  • You have shortness of breath, wheezing, or chest tightness.
  • You have a history of heart problems.
  • Your cough is accompanied by night sweats.
  • Your child has croup.

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

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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

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