Coughing is very common. Most of us have and will have episodes of lingering cough through our lives. But it can also be a symptom of many different medical conditions. It is important to take note of the duration, type and features of your cough as well as any other symptoms of illness.
How Cough Is Diagnosed
Your doctor will start by taking a detailed medical history and asking about the nature of your cough; when it gets worse, when it gets better and if you are having additional symptoms. If your cough is associated with other symptoms such as fever, chest pains, headaches, drowsiness, confusion, coughing up blood or having difficulty breathing it will likely require further tests. Commonly these include blood tests, sputum (mucus) tests, imaging tests such as a chest X-ray or CT scan, spirometry or a methacholine challenge test.
To help your doctor get a proper diagnosis, it may be a good idea to prepare the following information in advance:
- When did your cough start?
- Does your cough bring up mucus?
- If there is mucus, what's the consistency and color? Is there any blood?
- Do you have any allergies or cough triggers?
- Have you been in close contact with people with any respiratory infections such as common cold, tuberculosis, pneumonia or whooping cough?
- What medical illnesses do you have?
- Do you smoke cigarettes or marijuana? Do you vape? Do you use drugs?
The treatment of your cough depends on its cause. Luckily, the vast majority of coughs are caused by mild upper respiratory tract infections such as the common cold, and so they will go away on their own. If a cough doesn't go away though, the cause may be more serious and a doctor should be consulted.
Over-the-counter medication can help decrease symptoms of an upper respiratory infection, while more serious conditions such as COPD or asthma exacerbations usually require inhalers and other treatment. The use of cough drops, hard candy or honey can help soothe dry cough and sore throat. A vaporizer or a steamy shower can help decrease nasal congestion and soothe the throat and airway that are chronically irritated from persistent coughing.
If your cough is caused by allergies or a specific irritant, avoid or reduce your exposure to it. Smoking can also be an irritant so avoid secondhand smoke and quit smoking if you are a smoker.
Reviewed and approved by the American Lung Association Scientific and Medical Editorial Review Panel.
Page last updated: February 23, 2021