When to See a Doctor for Your Cough

Most of the time, a cough will go away on its own and is nothing to worry about. But there are times when one should prompt you to see a doctor. While a cough is sometimes a symptom of something as simple as seasonal allergies or the common cold, there are many types of illnesses and conditions that may be to blame—some of which may require urgent treatment.

Considering the following can help you decide when seeing a doctor for a cough (or even heading to the hospital) is advised. If your situation doesn't seem like an emergency, but your cough is new and doesn't seem to go away in a reasonable amount of time (usually a couple of weeks), it's still best to get an evaluation.

You're Coughing Up 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. When your sputum is yellow, green, or tan it often indicates the presence of white blood cells that may be fighting an infection (it is also seen in cystic fibrosis).

If you are coughing up discolored mucus 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 pneumonia or another lung disease.

If you are coughing up pink, frothy mucus, you should go to an emergency room immediately. This is can be a sign of heart failure or pulmonary edema.

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 bottom of what's causing you to cough up blood.

You're Wheezing and Short of Breath

If your cough is accompanied by wheezing and shortness of breath, it's possible it could be caused by something like asthma, an allergic reaction, or even acid reflux.

In any case, you should definitely visit your doctor in case additional testing to rule out an infection (e.g., bronchitis) or more serious conditions (e.g., pneumonia) may be necessary.

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), hypertension, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, diastolic 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 Have Sweats or Fevers at Night

Night sweats can be caused by a number of things, from anxiety to taking a new medication or even the natural transition to 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 Is Lingering for 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 an antihistamine or decongestant to help clear it up.

Your Child Also Has a Fever Over 104

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a fever over 104 degrees 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. Especially concerning signs in children under 1 year include a cough that is constant or nearly so, and a "whoop" sound when breathing.

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) doesn't subside 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.

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 healthcare 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 healthcare provider to get guidance for your specific case.

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Article Sources
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  2. American Lung Association. Warning signs of heart failure. Updated May 31, 2017.

  3. Earwood JS, Thompson TD. Hemoptysis: evaluation and management. Am Fam Physician. 2015;91(4):243-9.

  4. MedlinePlus. Wheezing. Updated May 20, 2018.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tuberculosis (TB). Signs and Symptoms. Updated March 17, 2016.

  6. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Cough.

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Influenza (flu). Flu symptoms & complications. Updated September 18, 2019.

  8. Bjornson CL, Johnson DW. Croup in childrenCMAJ. 2013;185(15):1317–1323. doi:10.1503/cmaj.121645

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