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
- Abnormal widening of airways called bronchiectasis
- 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.