Etheridge Family Medicine: "Where we focus on preventive care for a long, healthy and prosperous life." 

How do we know whether or not to see a doctor if we get a cough?

Cough can be a protective mechanism, whereby we cough to clear things out of our lungs to help prevent infection. Cough may indicate a problem with our upper or lower respiratory tract. Cough may be related to infection or underlying cancer.

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Some of the things that are important to pay attention to are the following. Is the cough productive of mucous and if so, is the mucus clear, white or discolored? If the mucous is discolored or if you are coughing up blood, you should see your physician.

Do you have any chest tightness, shortness of breath or wheezing associated with your cough? If so you should see your physician or go to an emergency room. You may have an infection of the upper/ lower airways like bronchitis or pneumonia, asthma, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).

You may need an inhaler that helps open up the airways and calms down the inflammation, swelling, and irritability. You may also need to see a specialist, a pulmonologist or allergist for further evaluation and testing. Do you have any sore throat, postnasal drip, runny itchy eyes or frequent clearing of your throat associated with your cough?

If so, your cough may be secondary to allergy symptoms. Sometimes the use of an antihistamine such as Claritin, Allegra or Zyrtec may be useful. Do you have any nausea, indigestion or heartburn associated with your cough or are your symptoms worse at night when you lay down? If so, your cough may be from heartburn or indigestion and the symptoms may improve after changing dietary food choices, eating patterns and lifestyle changes.

If you are a smoker, it is important to quit smoking. Smoking is known to increase the risk for multiple forms of cancer, including lung cancer. If you experience any coughing up of blood or unexplained weight loss, the symptoms may be from underlying cancer. Smokers can do low dose CT imaging of the chest for screening for lung cancer and see a pulmonary specialist for breathing tests.

As you can see, cough can be caused by many different things. If you are having a persistent cough, be sure to see your physician to help determine the underlying cause and treatment options that may be available.