Last updated:

Reviewed by:

Dr Bryony Henderson

, Lead GP at Livi

Medically reviewed

A cough is a reflex action to clear mucus and irritants from your airways. Understand the different types of cough and when to seek medical help.

What is a cough?

A cough is a natural reflex to clear your airways of mucus and irritants like dust or smoke. It's not usually a sign of anything serious.

Most coughs will clear up within 3 weeks and don't require medical treatment. A cough that lingers for much longer, known as a continuous cough, should be discussed with a doctor to identify the cause.

Causes of coughing

A cough is a natural action that protects you from unwanted substances in your lungs. The main causes are viruses like cold and flu, allergies or asthma, irritants like cold air or smoke, hay fever, acid reflux and long term conditions like COPD.

  • Acute cough - less than three weeks

This is most commonly caused by a viral infection (including COVID) although bacterial infections such as whooping cough can also cause a cough that lasts typically under 3 weeks in duration. The cough can either be dry- often described as a tickly cough and doesn't produce any phlegm (thick mucus) or chesty -  meaning phlegm is produced to help clear your airways.

It can also be caused by an allergy or an irritation to something you have inhaled such as dust or smoke.

If you have a long term medical condition that affects your lungs, such as asthma or COPD, any flare can cause a short lived cough. 

  • A subacute cough  - between 3 and 8 weeks

This is commonly caused by a post infectious cough. Any infection can cause a lingering cough.

  • Chronic, or persistent, cough - more than 8 weeks

There are a wide variety of causes of chronic coughs including 

Smokers cough
A smoker’s cough is a type of persistent cough which you often get if you smoke. A smoker’s cough tends to be ‘phlegmy’ with mucus rather than dry. People with a smoker’s cough often experience wheezing too. Smoking can make you more prone to health issues with your lungs, like bronchitispneumonia

Other causes of cough include asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), bronchiectasis, acid reflux, heart failure or lung cancer.

Some prescribed medications, such as a certain class of medication used to treat high blood pressure, can cause a persistent cough. 

Types of cough

A cough is usually categorised as dry or chesty, and is a symptom of a common cold or chest infection.

Dry cough or ‘tickly cough’
A dry cough can have several different causes, including viruses which cause the common cold or COVID..

Chesty cough or ‘phlegm cough’
A chesty cough A phlegm cough can be a sign of a chest infection – these are usually mild and clear up on their own but can sometimes be severe and life threatening.

Whooping cough
Whooping cough, also called pertussis, is a bacterial infection of the lungs and breathing tubes. It is very contagious and can be dangerous for babies who are more vulnerable to dehydration, breathing difficulties, pneumonia and seizures.

Persistent cough
Sometimes known as a chronic cough, a persistent cough is one that lasts more than 8 weeks. The time your cough lasts is important because persistent coughs usually have different causes and treatments. 

Croup cough
Croup is a common condition that mainly affects babies' airways. Although croup is usually mild, it's important to seek medical advice in case treatment is needed. The symptoms of croup are usually a barking cough that sounds like a seal, difficulty breathing and a rasping sound when breathing in.   

Covid cough
What is a Covid cough like?It can be difficult to tell whether a cough is a sign of Covid, but you should always get tested if you develop a new cough. This is especially important if you are coughing a lot for more than an hour or have three or more coughing fits in 24 hours.

Tight chest or pain and cough

Chest tightness with a cough can Have many causes including a pulmonary embolism blood clot on the lung). If you have chest tightness or pain that causes concern - particularly if you are experiencing shortness of breath, it’s always best to speak to a doctor straight away to rule out any serious conditions

How to stop coughing

Coughs lasting less than three weeks are usually caused by viruses, and although there’s no simple cure, there are plenty of self-help cough remedies that can help. The infection is likely to resolve within a few weeks. 

It is important to drink plenty of fluids and speak to your pharmacist about over the counter medications that can help. 

Cough medicine & cough syrup

Over-the-counter cough syrup can be helpful in reducing the urge to cough and soothing irritation, but there’s little evidence to suggest they're better than simple home remedies, and they're not suitable for everyone. 

Cough home remedies

Some people find it helpful to drink lots of warm drinks, and inhale warm and moist air to soothe their cough symptoms. It can be helpful to add a spoonful of honey or lemon into hot drinks like tea, too.

When to see your GP

It is important to seek urgent medical help if:

  • you/your child are coughing up blood

  • you/your child have chest pain or difficulty in breathing

  • your child has a temperature of above 38C (if under 3 months old) or above 39C (if older than 3 months old)

  • your child is not passing urine or nappies are drier than normal

  • your child is not drinking or seems floppy and listless.

  • your child has a rash

It is important to contact your GP if:

  • your cough/child's cough is ongoing for more than 3 weeks

  • your cough/child's cough is getting worse

  • you experience other symptoms such as weight loss

Last updated:
Reviewed by:
Dr Bryony Henderson, Lead GP at Livi