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Cough

Coughing is part of your natural immune defence system. It is better to cough up phlegm. Otherwise the phlegm may lodge lower in the lungs where it can cause serious infections like pneumonia.

A cough will usually go away within 3 weeks on its own.

You should see your GP if your cough lasts more than 3 weeks or if you cough up blood.

Symptoms and causes of cough

Most coughs are caused by the common cold, the flu or bronchitis. Coughs often come with symptoms like runny nose, fever, sore throat, ear ache and general aches and pains.

Smoking can cause you to have a cough. Other causes include heartburn, allergies like hay fever and mucus dripping down the throat from the back of the nose

If you have asthma, your cough may be caused by dust, pollens, grasses, cold air or exercise.

Treatment

If your cough is a result of a cold or the flu, you do not need to see the doctor. Antibiotics will not cure a cold or the flu.

There is no quick way to get rid of a cough. It will usually clear up after your immune system has defeated the bug that is causing it.

The simplest and cheapest way to ease a tickly or chesty cough is with any of the common over-the-counter remedies.

You should rest, drink plenty of fluids. Hot lemon with honey has a similar effect as cough medicines. This hot drink is not suitable for babies.

People with asthma

If you have asthma, you are probably already on inhalers and perhaps tablets to control your asthma. When your symptoms flare you need to follow the management plan you have agreed with your doctor. This will vary depending on the pattern and severity of your asthma. It will usually mean taking your reliever inhaler 4 to 5 times a day. You may have to increase your preventer inhaler while you have the cough.

Smokers

Smokers usually get two types of cough. It can be a cough caused by irritation or damage to the lungs due to smoking. It could also be one caused by colds, the flu or bronchitis.

A cough lasting more than 3 weeks or coughing up blood can be a sign of lung cancer.

It’s important to think about quitting smoking. The HSE provides free support to smokers who are thinking of quitting. This support is available on the phone, online or in person.

Visit www.quit.ie or Freefone our QUIT team on 1800 201 203.

See your GP if you:

  • find it hard to breathe
  • have a hacking cough or can't stop coughing and it's getting worse
  • have a weakened immune system, for example because of chemotherapy or diabetes
  • are losing weight for no reason
  • have chest pain
  • have asthma or a chronic lung condition
  • have had a cough for more than 3 weeks (persistent cough)

See a GP urgently if you're coughing up blood.

At your GP appointment

To find out what's causing your cough your GP will ask you questions about your symptoms and examine you. They may also:

  • take a sample of any mucus you might be coughing up
  • order an X-ray or test to see how well your lungs work
  • refer you to hospital to see a specialist, but this is rare

page last reviewed: 13/06/2019
next review due: 13/06/2022