What is a cough?
Most coughs are caused by viruses which inflame the throat, windpipe or lungs. Coughs caused by viruses can last for several weeks, but your body will normally fight off the infection without the need for medical treatment.
Coughs can also be caused by an infection like laryngitis, sinusitis, whooping cough, bronchitis or pneumonia. Sometimes they are caused by an allergy or a flare up of a long-term problem like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or chronic bronchitis.
Antibiotics are of no use in a viral infection.
Cough is a common symptom for colds and the flu. It can be difficult to tell the difference between them. In general symptoms are more intense with the flu.
Self-care of a cough
If you are looking after yourself, the tips below may help 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 heavy 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.
- Find out more about self-care tips if you have a high temperature (fever).
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.
Not sure what to do next?
If you are still concerned about your cough, check your symptoms with healthdirect’s online Symptom Checker to get advice on when to seek medical attention.
The Symptom Checker guides you to the next appropriate healthcare steps, whether it’s self care, talking to a health professional, going to a hospital or calling triple zero (000).
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: September 2017