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Coughing is the body's natural way of trying to clear the airways of anything stuck there, mucus after a cold, or irritating smoke or dust.

There are different types of cough - long-term (persistent) and short-term (acute) coughs, and coughing that happens automatically as a reflex. Also, someone may just choose to cough to try to clear their throat.

Coughs can also be dry, tickly, or chesty.

Most coughs will clear up on their own - but if they don't get better in 3 weeks - seek medical advice to establish what's causing it.

Causes of short-term coughs

Short-term coughs can have many causes, including:

Causes of long-term coughs

Long-term coughs can also have many causes, including:

  • Long-term (chronic) bronchitis or other respiratory tract infection
  • COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
  • Asthma, often with other asthma symptoms
  • Allergy
  • Abnormal widening of airways called bronchiectasis
  • Sinusitis
  • Mucus dripping down the throat, called postnasal drip
  • Stomach acid affecting the throat due to gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD)
  • Side-effects of some medication, including ACE inhibitors for high blood pressure
  • Lung cancer - coughing for 3 weeks or more is highlighted as a possible lung cancer symptom in the NHS Be Clear on Cancer campaign
  • Heart failure
  • Blood clot in the lung ( pulmonary embolism)
  • TB ( tuberculosis).

Causes of children's coughs

Additional causes of coughs for children include:

  • Croup, with barking cough and stridor breathing sounds
  • Bronchiolitis respiratory tract infection
  • Health conditions, including cystic fibrosis

When to seek medical advice about a cough

If cough symptoms haven't got better in 3 weeks - seek medical advice.

Other reasons to seek medical advice for a cough include:

  • The cough is getting worse
  • Severe coughing
  • Voice has changed, not just for a short time
  • Coughing up blood
  • Coughing and shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, chest pain
  • Unplanned weight loss with a cough
  • Coughing with swelling or lumps in the neck

Home cough treatments

The NHS doesn't recommend cough remedies or cough medicines because of a lack of evidence that they work - but some people find they bring some relief from cough symptoms. These are not suitable for children under 6 - and only for 6-12 year olds on medical advice.

Instead, try the classic home remedy of honey and lemon - but don't give honey to babies under a year old.

Avoiding things that start you coughing can help - like smoking, secondhand cigarette smoke, and dusty conditions.

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