Coughing

For children under 12, see chart 47

Coughing is the body’s defence mechanism for clearing the airways of inhaled particles or secretions. Persistent coughing may be due to infection or inflammation in the lungs or to the effects of irritants such as tobacco smoke. Persistent coughing should be investigated by your doctor.

  • How long have you had a cough?

    • Less than 48 hours

      Do you have a fever – a temperature of 38°C (100.4°F) or above?

      • Fever

        Are you having either of the following problems with breathing?

        • Breathing is painful
          • Possible cause Pneumonia may be the cause of these symptoms.

            Medical help URGENT! Phone your doctor immediately!

        • You are short of breath
          • Possible cause Pneumonia may be the cause of these symptoms.

            Medical help URGENT! Phone your doctor immediately!

        • Neither

          Have you coughed up sputum?

          • Sputum
            • Possible cause Acute bronchitis is a possibility.

              Medical help See your doctor within 24 hours.

          • No sputum
            • Possible cause A viral illness such as a severe cold (see Common cold) or influenza is a likely cause of your cough.

              Self-help Follow the self-help advice for bringing down a fever. Consult your doctor if you are no better in 2 days or if other symptoms develop.

      • No fever

        Have you inhaled any of the following in the last few hours?

        • Particle of food
          • Possible cause Coughing is the body’s natural response to a foreign body that has lodged in the lungs.

            Medical help Phone your doctor if coughing has not subsided within 1 hour.

        • Tobacco smoke
          • Possible cause Being in a smoky atmosphere can irritate the lungs.

            Self-help Move into a well-ventilated area. See your doctor if you become breathless or develop other symptoms.

        • Dust, fumes, or smoke from a fire
          • Possible cause Severe inflammation of the respiratory tract can occur as a result of breathing in any of these substances.

            Medical help URGENT! Phone your doctor immediately!

        • None of the above

          Do you have either of the following symptoms?

          • Runny nose
            • Possible cause A cold (see Common cold) is the probable cause of your cough.

              Self-help Steam inhalation may help. Consult your doctor if your breathing becomes painful or you start to wheeze, if you are no better in 2 days, or if other symptoms develop.

          • Sore throat
            • Possible cause A cold (see Common cold) is the probable cause of your cough.

              Self-help Steam inhalation may help. Consult your doctor if your breathing becomes painful or you start to wheeze, if you are no better in 2 days, or if other symptoms develop.

          • Neither
            • Possible cause A cough without any other symptoms may be caused by asthma. Chronic heart failure is a less likely possibility.

              Medical help Make an appointment to see your doctor.

    • Over 48 hours

      Are you coughing up sputum?

      • Sputum

        Are you a smoker?

        • Smoker
        • Nonsmoker
          • If you cannot identify a possible cause for your cough from this chart, make an appointment to see your doctor.

      • No sputum

        Are you currently taking any prescribed medication?

        • Medication
          • Possible cause Your symptoms may be a side effect of the medication.

            Medical help Make an appointment to see your doctor. Continue to take the medication unless advised to stop by your doctor.

        • No medication

Warning

Coughing up blood

You should always consult your doctor if you cough up blood, although, if you otherwise feel well, a single instance of coughing up sputum that contains streaks of blood is unlikely to be serious. However, if you have more than one such episode or cough up a large amount of blood, you should see a doctor without delay.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

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