What is a cough?
Coughing is a protective reflex. It can remove substances that may have been accidentally inhaled and excess secretions that have built up in the airways.
Coughing is commonly triggered by irritation. Most coughs are caused by viruses that inflame the throat, windpipe or lungs.
Coughs caused by viruses can last for several weeks. Your body will normally fight off the virus without the need for medical treatment.
What symptoms are related to a cough?
Cough is a common symptom for colds and the flu. It can be difficult to tell the difference between a cold and a flu. In general symptoms are more intense with the flu.
The symptoms of a cough will vary depending on what is causing it. A cough that follows a cold will usually be loose and sometimes produce mucus. It is often worse at night.
A cough might last for up to 3 weeks after the other symptoms of the cold have stopped and up to 6 weeks in children.
CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the colds and flu Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.
What causes a cough?
The most common cause of a cough, by far, is a viral infection, where the cough is part of a cold or the flu. Coughs can also be caused by an infection like:
When should I see my doctor?
Please seek medical attention if:
- you have a cough that lasts for more than 3 weeks
- the cough is severe or getting worse
- you are short of breath
- you cough up blood
- you have unexplained problems like weight loss or a fever
If your child has a cough, please see a doctor if they have:
- a cough that starts suddenly
- a cough that lasts longer than 2 weeks, with or without a cold
- a cough interferes a lot with their sleep or daily life
- difficulty with breathing
- a high fever
- skin changing colour, turning blue or very pale
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How is a cough treated?
Most of the time a cough will go away on its own, but there are things you can do to relieve the symptoms:
- It is important to stay well hydrated so drink plenty of water. If you have an existing medical condition, check with your doctor about how much water is right for you. Use extra pillows (for older children and adults) or raise the head of the bed to reduce coughing at night.
- Keep the room at a comfortable temperature.
- Rest and avoid vigorous activity until symptoms go away.
- Smoking or breathing in other people’s smoke can make symptoms worse. Try to avoid being around people who are smoking. If you are a smoker, try to cut down or quit. For advice on quitting smoking, visit the Quit Now website.
- Honey may help to reduce the severity and duration of a cough. One to 2 teaspoons of honey taken 30 minutes before bedtime may be helpful — but not for children aged under 12 months.
- Find out more about self-care tips if you have a high temperature (fever).
Antibiotics are of no use if your cough is caused by a viral infection.
Cough medicines are not helpful for treating cough — and should not be given to children aged under 6 years as it may be harmful. Vaporisers and humidifiers don’t make coughing better.
Can cough be prevented?
You can’t prevent a cough caused by a virus (cold or flu). If the cough is caused by asthma, appropriate asthma treatment can help it.
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Last reviewed: September 2019