When to See a Doctor About a Cough

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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Treating That Cough

A cough is one of the most common reasons people visit the doctor. Most coughs get better on their own in less than three weeks. Sometimes, however, a cough can be a symptom of a condition that would benefit from medical treatment.

How long should you wait?

Although many people expect a cough to last about 7 to 9 days, most coughs due to the cold or flu last an average of 18 days. 

In general, it’s a good idea to contact your doctor if a cough lasts more than two weeks. Also, if the cough is getting worse over time, see your doctor for a professional medical evaluation. Otherwise, it may simply need to run its course. Most coughs from a cold or the flu will resolve without treatment. 

If your cough is making it difficult to get restful sleep, ask your doctor or nurse for the best type of cough medicine. A cool-mist humidifier to keep your sleep area cool and moist also will help.

These symptoms warrant seeing your doctor.

A cough can be caused by an illness besides the cold or flu, such as pneumonia. It’s a good idea to see your doctor for a diagnosis. Call your doctor if you have a cough and any of the following symptoms:

These symptoms may signal that your cough is due to a medical condition or an illness other than the cold or flu. 

One of the best ways to get rid of a cough is to address the problem causing it in the first place. When a cough is caused by asthma, for example, it should be treated with asthma medications. 

Before using cough medicine, consult your doctor.

Some coughs can actually be productive. Coughing gets rid of mucus in your airways, which can prevent infection. In some cases, such as pneumonia, a cough is good because it helps clear your airways so you can breathe.

If you have any of the following symptoms, talk with your doctor before using cough medicine:

Take action against a cold or flu.

You might think you should see a doctor for an antibiotic if you are coughing because of a cold. But if you have a cold or the flu, antibiotics won’t help. That’s because viruses, not bacteria, cause colds and the flu. Antibiotics don’t treat viruses. 

Sometimes, antibiotics can help a cough. Antibiotics can treat sinus infections and bacterial pneumonia, for example.

If you are coughing because of the flu, your doctor may prescribe antiviral medication. Antiviral medication can prevent flu complications and make the flu milder. Antiviral drugs work best if you take them within two days of the start of symptoms. 

If in doubt, call your doctor. Your doctor will be able to suggest the best course of action to find relief for your cough.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Oct 7
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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