When to See a Doctor for Your Cough

We all cough from time to time. Cough can be a symptom of all types of illnesses and conditions. Typically coughs are usually nothing to worry about and will go away on their own. But how do you know when it's something more serious that needs treatment?

If you have a cough that is new and doesn't seem to go away in a reasonable amount of time (usually a couple of weeks), then you may want to talk to your health care provider. However, there are other reasons you may need to see a doctor more urgently. Read on for several examples.

Your Cough Is Producing Discolored Mucus

Mucus, otherwise known as sputum or phlegm, is made of secretions from cells lining the respiratory tract and often shows up if you're experiencing an infection such as bronchitis. If you're coughing up mucus that is yellow, green or tan and it's lasted more than a week or is accompanied by a fever, it's definitely a cause for concern, as it could be a sign of conditions such as pneumonia, cystic fibrosis, or other lung diseases. If you are coughing up pink, frothy mucus, you should go to an emergency room immediately.

You're Coughing Up Blood

Coughing up blood can be due to a number of causes, whether it's simply inflammation in your airways, from bronchitis or pneumonia, or as a symptom of lung cancer. Many of these potential causes can be quite serious, so it's definitely best to visit your provider to get to the root of what's causing it to happen.

You're Experiencing Shortness of Breath and Wheezing

If your cough is accompanied by wheezing and shortness of breath, it's possible it could be caused by something like an allergic reaction or even acid reflux. In any case, you should definitely visit your doctor in case they recommend additional testing to rule out an infection such as bronchitis or more serious conditions such as lung cancer or pneumonia.

You Have Heart Problems

Coughing is most often associated with lung problems or respiratory infections, but it can also be associated with heart failure due to various cardiac disorders such as coronary artery disease (CAD)hypertensionhypertrophic cardiomyopathydiastolic dysfunction, or heart valve disease, In this case, a cough is often accompanied by frothy mucus that may be white or pink in color and contain blood. If you've been diagnosed with heart failure and suddenly have a cough, you should visit your doctor immediately.

You're Also Experiencing Night Sweats or Fevers at Night

Night sweats can be caused by a number of things, from anxiety to taking a new medication or even if you're going through menopause. However, if it's accompanied by a cough and fever, one possibility is that you've contracted tuberculosis. As such, it's worth a visit to your doctor to either rule it out or to quickly receive treatment.

Your Cough Has Lasted More Than 3 Weeks

A cough lasting three to eight weeks is defined as a subacute cough, which may be caused by a post-infectious cough or postnasal drip. While these may not be as serious as other medical conditions, your doctor may want to prescribe antihistamines or a decongestant to help clear it up.

Your Child Has a Cough and Fever Over 104 F

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a fever over 104 F is an emergency warning sign of the flu. Chest pain with a cough can be a severe symptom as well. Contact your provider immediately if your child is experiencing these symptoms, as it's pertinent to receive treatment as soon as possible once a flu diagnosis is confirmed.

Additionally, any infant that is coughing for more than a few hours should be seen by a doctor. If a cough is constant or nearly constant and your child makes a "whoop" sound when they try to breathe, it's especially concerning in young children under one year old. 

Your Child Has Croup

Croup is a term used to define inflammation and swelling of the area of the throat that includes the vocal cords. If a child's croupy cough and stridor (a low-pitched sound that comes with their breathing) subsides with home treatments, call their doctor in the morning, as they may want to prescribe steroids or inhaled epinephrine to help bring down the swelling.

What You Can Do on Your Own

If you don't need to see a health care provider for your cough, there are things you can do to get relief. There are many over the counter cough remedies available, although how well they work is debatable. Suppressing a cough is generally not a good idea unless it's keeping you up at night. Coughing is your body's way of expelling germs and mucus from your airway and preventing that from occurring can lead to more serious illness. 

Make sure you drink plenty of fluids when you are coughing. This will help thin the mucus in your body so it drains more easily. It also keeps your throat moist so you won't be coughing due to dryness or irritation as much. 

Adults and kids over three can use cough drops, which also coat the throat and help with irritation. Children over one year old may benefit from eating a spoonful of honey when they are coughing. Studies have shown this is more effective at helping with a cough than cough medications in children. Children under one year old should not be given honey due to the risk of botulism.

A Word From Verywell

Coughs are annoying but often don't need treatment. However, because they can be caused by so many different types of illnesses and health conditions, you should always contact your health care provider if your cough concerns you or it is different from coughs you have had in the past. If you aren't sure or are concerned about your cough, it is always best to check with your health care provider to get guidance for your specific case.

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Article Sources

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tuberculosis (TB). Signs and Symptoms.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Influenza (flu). Flu symptoms & complications.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Botulism. Prevention.

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