Cough In Adults

Cough in Adults

This fact sheet helps you to know what’s ‘normal’ and what you can expect to happen if you develop a cough. It also tells you when you should become concerned and seek advice from a health professional.

Useful facts

 Types of cough A cough may be acute, lasting less than three weeks, or chronic, when it may go on for more than eight weeks. Cough can also be dry or productive of sputum (phlegm).

 Frequency Most adults experience episodes of coughing between two and five times a year, and about one in five people suffer from coughs during the winter months.

 Rarely serious Although coughing often impairs people’s quality of life, it is rarely due to serious causes and usually gets better by itself.

 What causes coughs? Acute cough is most commonly caused by a viral upper respiratory tract infection (URTI) due to a cold. A chronic cough is common in smokers and can sometimes suggest an underlying lung problem, but may also be caused by conditions outside the lung, such as heartburn (gastric reflux). Cough may also result from taking certain drugs (check the label), asthma, and environmental factors (dusty workplaces, for example).


What can I expect to happen?

 Coughing is usually harmless Although coughs can be distressing (both for yourself and others living or working with you) and a nuisance because they often last for several weeks, acute coughs are almost always harmless and usually start to improve within three weeks.

 No need for antibiotics Antibiotics do not work against viral infections, which cause most acute coughs, and so they may do more harm than good.

 Duration You may easily suffer a dry cough for 3 to 4 weeks after an infection has settled.

 Tests You don’t normally need any tests if you suffer from an acute cough.

What can I do myself to get better – now and in the future?

 Try not to cough Although this may sound easier said than done, you may be able to cough less often by trying not to cough, because our desire to cough can sometimes be influenced by our brain.

 Home remedies Try simple home remedies, such as ‘honey and lemon’ – just add freshly squeezed juice from one lemon and a teaspoon of honey to a mug of hot water. Drink at least 6 to 9 glasses of water in a day and suck lozenges.

 Stop smoking Smoking is one of the commonest reasons for a chronic cough. Stopping smoking – or at least smoking less – not only improves your cough, but also benefits your health in other ways (reducing the risk of heart attack, stroke, and lung cancer, for example).

 Cough mixtures There is little evidence to say whether over the counter medicines are effective for relieving cough symptoms. Despite the lack of research evidence, you may still get some subjective benefit from over the counter preparations – speak to your pharmacist.

 Paracetamol Paracetamol can help with relieving symptoms that may accompany a cough, such as a sore throat, fevers, and not feeling well.

When should I seek medical help?

Seek medical advice immediately if you feel more unwell than you’d expect, if it starts after you’ve choked on something, or if you notice any of the warning symptoms below, which in rare cases can suggest a more serious underlying cause:

 Coughing up blood You cough up blood for no obvious reason.

 Duration Your cough is not getting better within three to four weeks.

 Chest or shoulder pain In addition to your cough, you have chest and/or shoulder pain.

 Breathlessness You also find it difficult to breathe.

 Weight loss You’re losing weight for no apparent reason over a period of six weeks or more.

 Voice changes Your voice becomes hoarse for longer than three weeks, and the hoarseness persists after the cough has settled.

 New lumps or swellings You notice new swellings anywhere in the neck or above your collarbones.

Where can I find out more?

Check out NHS Choices ( Introduction.aspx) or the Choose Well website ( for more information on how you can treat and prevent cough. Remember that your pharmacist can also help you with assessing your symptoms.