When should I worry about a cough?

Cough cause for concern

The first sign of a scratchy throat or a cough is enough to make anyone nervous and can leave you wondering: Is this just a temporary tickle in my throat, or should I hit the cold and flu aisle?
Before you panic, know that a cough can be a symptom of many different illnesses or health conditions.

“A cough isn’t necessarily a cause for concern; it can be a symptom of something as benign as allergies, a sinus infection or a cold,” says Jeffrey Stevens, DO, family medicine physician at Paoli Hospital, part of Main Line Health.

In cases like these, your cough will often resolve in a few days and home remedies may be able to offer you some relief. Throat lozenges will ease a dry or scratchy throat, while hot water or hot tea with honey can help loosen mucus and clear your throat.

But if these tried-and-true tactics don’t help resolve your cough within a few days, it’s time to make an appointment with your doctor.

“A chronic cough, or a cough that persists for several days, is definitely something to visit your doctor for. It can be an indicator of illness or a more serious health condition that doesn’t respond to over-the-counter medication or at-home remedies,” explains Dr. Stevens.

Potential causes of a chronic cough can include the flu, bronchitis, laryngitis, pneumonia, asthma, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), allergies or emphysema. In some instances, psychological factors like stress may even be causing or worsening your cough.

Fortunately, these can all be easily diagnosed and treated using simple, often non-invasive testing techniques.

"A viral infection is a very common cause of a cough, especially during winter. It can be termed bronchitis, a post-viral cough or upper airway cough syndrome. This type of cough can be frustrating and distressing for patients because it can last for weeks at a time and, often, it just needs to run its course," says Dr. Stevens. "If you've had a cough for several days or weeks, a proper diagnosis is going to help you find relief. Don't continue to try and treat the problem on your own."

Rare causes of chronic cough

In rare cases, a chronic cough can be a sign of more serious health conditions, like heart failure, lung cancer or lung disease or pertussis (whooping cough). Although most cases of chronic cough are not a result of these causes, notify your doctor if you experience symptoms like:

  • A fever
  • Coughing up blood or mucus
  • Weight loss
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Fatigue or muscle weakness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Chest pain when you aren’t coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Night sweats

While these symptoms shouldn’t cause you to panic, make sure you take note of them and report them to your doctor during your appointment.

Don’t think twice before making an appointment

We wouldn’t think twice before visiting the doctor for stomach pain or muscle aches that won’t go away—don’t think twice about a chronic cough, either.

“Even though coughing is common, and often benign, it’s still worth a visit with your doctor to make sure you have an accurate diagnosis and are following the appropriate treatment plan,” says Dr. Stevens.

Find the doctor that's right for you

Finding a doctor who knows you well, can help you stay well. But finding someone you trust requires getting to know them, too. Try our MyPrimary tool, which helps match you with a Main Line Health primary care physician that's right for you based on your health needs and schedule.

As an extension of our Main Line Health family of acute care hospitals, our premier urgent care centers provide medical services for a wide range of health conditions and non-life-threatening health issues that don’t require a trip to the ER—including a cough.