How do you know if it is serious?

You wake up in the morning and notice that your throat seems dry and scratchy. The next thing you know, you start coughing. After about a minute, your throat clears, the coughing stops, and you feel better. What causes this to happen? What’s the difference between a mild cough and one that indicates something more serious is going on?


A cough is your body’s response to something that is irritating your throat or airway. This is important to help prevent things from going in your airway or clearing things, like mucus, out of it. When something irritates your throat or airway, the nerves in the area send a signal to your brain. Then, your brain sends a signal to the muscles in your chest and abdomen to force air out of your lungs in an attempt to get rid of the irritant. This is why it’s okay to cough occasionally because your body is trying to protect you. The force needed to remove an irritant is significant. The velocity of air expelled during a cough has been measured at close to 500 miles per hour. This is why having a forceful cough for an extended period can be so tiring and lead to various side effects, such as headaches, chest discomfort, sleeplessness, urinary incontinence, and broken ribs.

If a cough lasts less than three weeks, it is called acute. Typically, this type of cough is caused by the common cold, flu, pneumonia, whooping cough, or inhaling an irritant, like a chemical. A cough is chronic if it lasts longer than eight weeks for adults or four weeks for children. This type is usually caused by allergies, bronchitis, postnasal drip, gastroesophageal reflux (GERD), and asthma, which is more common in children. There are numerous other causes, such as sinus infection, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema, laryngitis, tuberculosis, heart failure, lung cancer, neuromuscular disorders that affect the airway, certain medications (angiotensin-converting enzyme—ACE—inhibitors) and bronchiectasis (a condition that causes abnormal widening of the bronchial tubes making it difficult to clear mucus from them). Certain conditions that cause a cough are more common in children, including bronchiolitis, croup, choking, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).


Treatment for a cough will depend on the cause. Some remedies you can try at home to help relieve the discomfort associated with a cough are over-the-counter medications. There is a large selection, depending on what you need. Cough suppressants will decrease the urge to cough, while expectorants help to make it easier for your body to get rid of the mucus that is building up. Always follow the dosing instructions and don’t give any over-the-counter cough medicine to children under the age of 4 without checking with their doctor. Sucking on cough drops or hard candies can help alleviate your throat irritation (don’t give them to children under the age of 6 due to the possibility of choking). Swallowing a teaspoon of honey may help your cough, but don’t give it to children under the age of 1 because their digestive system can’t process it. Adding moisture to the air by using a vaporizer or taking a steamy shower can help break up mucus. The same is true for warm liquids. Also, these can provide relief for a sore throat. Avoid smoking or being around people who smoke because this can worsen your cough.

It’s essential to see a doctor if you’ve been coughing for several weeks without any improvement. Also, if you are coughing up thick, green/yellow-colored mucus, wheezing, develop shortness of breath, or have a temperature above 100°F, you should see your doctor. Call 911 if you are choking, have difficulty breathing or swallowing, or are coughing up bloody/pink-tinged mucus.


Since there are so many different causes of coughing, individualizing a prevention plan is very difficult. However, you can take some general steps to avoid getting sick. The best thing that you can do is to wash your hands thoroughly and appropriately. This means rubbing your hands, including the backs and fingernails, with warm soapy water for at least 20 seconds. It’s essential to do this after going to the bathroom, before eating food, if you cough/sneeze into your hands, and if you’ve been around others who are sick.

Vaccines are available for several possible causes of cough, which help you to elude them, such as the flu, pneumonia, and whooping cough. It’s important to remember that while adults and most children are eligible to receive these types of vaccinations, some children are too young to get them, increasing their risk of contracting an illness that can be extremely harmful, if not life-threatening. So, if you are not feeling well or have been around others who are sick, don’t hold or kiss infants or small children.

Another way to decrease the chances of having a cough from chronic diseases, like asthma, COPD, emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and chronic sinus infections, is not to smoke. Smoking alters your respiratory system predisposing it to developing these types of diseases. So, if you smoke, stop. If you don’t smoke, stay away from people who do because second-hand smoke is just as bad for you.

No one wants to have a cough and all of the ailments that can come with it. You can do things to lessen your discomfort if you have one, and there are ways to prevent getting one. If you have any questions or concerns, please speak with your doctor. If you would like more information, please visit MedlinePlus’s Cough page at