woman at the doctor being examined for her cough

When to See a Doctor for Your Cough

Maybe you’ve written off a short-term cough as part of a winter cold. Or maybe you’ve noticed a long-term cough sneaking up on you over the past few months or years. Wondering if it’s time to head to the doctor’s office, but wondering if it will even help? Here are a few indications it’s time to see a doctor for your cough. 

When to See a Doctor

A good general rule of thumb for going to the doctor is if a cough has lingered for three weeks. By this point in time, viral infections should have run their course. A continuing cough can be indicative of complications like pneumonia or bronchitis. This is especially true if it is a wet cough (one that produces mucus, phlegm, or other expectorant). If you’ve been coughing up sputum, there are many potential underlying causes that need treatment to manage. If you are coughing up blood, see your doctor immediately, without waiting the requisite three weeks. 

Additionally, if coughing is getting in the way of everyday life, causing interruptions at work or school, making it difficult to sleep, and not responding to at home treatments, see your doctor as soon as possible for help as well. Other indicators it’s time to make an appointment include a fever over 100.4 degrees, any wheezing, or difficulty breathing. Whooping cough, or pertussis, starts out like a normal cold for adults, but after the first two weeks or so, you develop a dry, violent cough that can be volatile enough to make you feel like vomiting. Its name comes from the “whoop” that accompanies inhalation following coughing fits. Whooping cough is contagious and can be extremely dangerous to infants. If you think you have whooping cough, see your doctor as soon as possible to begin antibiotics. 

Chronic Coughs

Chronic coughs can be a little different. Although three weeks is recommended for a “normal” cough, a chronic cough can sneak up on you, steadily growing worse over time. Depending on other symptoms that may coincide with a chronic cough, you may have something more serious going on.

Asthma, for example, is a chronic respiratory condition, and requires long-term treatment to keep the airways clear and enlarged. Wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest pain are common asthma symptoms, along with a wet or dry cough. If you’ve had controlled asthma, and have developed a recurrence of symptoms, you might need an adjustment in your medication. Although it tends to develop later in life, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) has symptoms similar to asthma, along with increased respiratory infections, excess mucus (particularly first thing in the morning), and fatigue, among other things. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a chronic and severe form of acid reflux. If your dry coughing begins while lying down at night or shortly after eating, your cough may be a result of GERD. Talk to your doctor about managing GERD to help get your cough under control and save your esophagus from increased damage. 
There are many other issues that can cause chronic coughs, some common like allergies. Others are more rare: tumors, heart failure, emphysema, and lung diseases. If your cough isn’t going away anytime soon, call your doctor to get an accurate diagnosis. 

Last Updated: December 01, 2016