Coughs: When should you be worried?

8 Min Read

Coughs and colds can be annoying but are usually mild and don’t need treatment. However, occasionally they can turn into something more, or have an underlying cause that needs treating. 

What causes coughs?
•    Colds + Flu
•    Smoking
•    Heartburn
•    Allergies
•    Infections

Most coughs and colds will clear up on their own in 3 to 4 weeks. To look after yourself you should get lots of rest and drink plenty. You should also try to avoid contact with other people so that you don’t spread any viruses. 
Common over the counter medications, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, can help to treat mild symptoms. A simple hot drink with lemon and honey is said to have similar effects to over-the counter cough medications. 
A pharmacist can give you advice on which over-the-counter medications may be suitable for you. 

When should I see a GP?
You should contact your GP for further advice if: 
•    you’ve had a cough for more than three weeks
•    you’ve lost weight without trying
•    you have a weakened immune system
You should seek urgent care if your cough suddenly gets worse, you have chest pain, your neck feels swollen, you find it hard to breathe, or you’re coughing up blood. (For a full list of symptoms that might indicate you need urgent care please see the NHS links at the bottom of this article). 

Chest Infections
A chest infection is an infection of the lungs or large airways. They often follow a cold or the flu. Some can be mild and clear up on their own, usually within 7 to 10 days. However, some can be more serious. 
Symptoms of a chest infection include:
•    a chesty cough
•    wheezing and shortness of breath
•    chest pain
•    a high temperature
•    a headache
•    aching muscles
•    tiredness
Your GP may want to do some tests to see what is causing your infection before they decide on what the correct treatment is. 

Coughs and colds in children 
Coughs and colds are extremely common in young children. Coughs can last for weeks before they get better, or children can get viral infections one after the other, which makes it seem like they are never well. Half of coughs go on for 10 days, and one in ten coughs go on for 25 days. 

When should I worry?
You should seek urgent help if your child:
•    is breathing very fast or has breathing that stops or pauses
•    makes harsh or grunting noises when they breath in or out
•    becomes pale, sleepy or confused
•    has not had a wee or wet nappy in the last 8 hours
•    has a rash that does not go away with pressure
For more information on urgent symptoms please use the Healthier Together App or visit:
If you are worried that your child has any of the symptoms listed above, please contact your GP urgently, or for out of hours call 111. 

Why can’t I get antibiotics for my cough or cold?
GPs do not recommend antibiotics for colds because they will not help your symptoms or speed up your recovery. Antibiotics only work if you have a bacterial infection, but colds are caused by viruses.
Similarly for coughs, a doctor will only give you antibiotics if you need them – for example if you have a bacterial infection or if you’re at risk of complications. 

Other conditions that may cause a cough

  • Bronchitis – inflammation of the airways in the lungs. This often gets better without treatment in around 3 weeks. 
  • Bronchiolitis – a usually mild and common chest infection that affects babies and children under 2. 
  • COPD – chronic obstructive pulmonary disease develops slowly over many years. It is usually associated with long term exposure to harmful substances such as smoking. 
  • Lung cancer – if you have a persistent cough your doctor may ask you to have some tests to rule out lung cancer. Most cases of lung cancer are caused by smoking. 
  • Pneumonia – an inflammation of the lungs, usually caused by infection. This is usually caused by a bacterial or viral infection.
  • Whooping cough – a bacterial infection of the lungs and breathing tubes. It can spread easily but a vaccination against whooping cough is routinely given to babies and preschool aged children to protect them. 

Sources and for more information
Cough - https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/cough/ 
Coughs and colds in children - https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/baby/health/colds-coughs-and-ear-infections-in-children/ 
Chest Infections - https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/chest-infection/
Find a pharmacy - https://www.nhs.uk/service-search/pharmacy/find-a-pharmacy 
Healthier Together 0-18 - https://www.what0-18.nhs.uk/parentscarers/worried-your-child-unwell/cough-and-cold
NHS 111 online - https://111.nhs.uk/triage/check-your-symptoms
Persistent Coughs - https://patient.info/news-and-features/when-to-worry-about-a-persistent-cough 
Pneumonia - https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pneumonia/
Self Care Forum Factsheet - https://www.selfcareforum.org/cough-in-adults/ 

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Consider the range of services available to you and use the NHS responsibly.

Be prepared to care for yourself with a well-stocked medicine cabinet and plenty of rest.

  • cough or cold
  • upset stomach
  • pain or headache
  • cuts and grazes
  • sore throat (but if for two weeks or more contact your GP)

For health advice, visit nhs.uk.

Your local Pharmacist is a trained medicine expert who can dispense and advise you on the safe use of prescription, repeat prescription and over-the-counter medicines. Most pharmacies are open until late and at weekends, and they all have a private area where you can talk to a Pharmacist in confidence. You don’t need to book an appointment to see a Pharmacist.

  • Ask for advice on ailments, medicines and healthier living
  • Queries about medication, dosage, type or suitability plus urgent requests or if related to hospital discharge
  • repeat prescription
  • sore eyes (but if persists go to optician)
  • runny nose
  • diarrhoea
  • bite or sting

GPs deal with a whole range of health problems including:

  • Conditions that can't be treated with over the counter medication or advice from a Pharmacist
  • Coughs lasting more than three weeks
  • New moles appearing or existing moles changing shape, size or colour

They also provide health education, offer advice on smoking and diet, run clinics, give vaccinations and carry out simple surgical operations. A range of health care professionals work at GP practices, including GPs, nurses, healthcare assistants, practice managers, receptionists and other staff. Practices also work closely with health visitors, midwives, mental health services and social care services. If the health professional you see cannot deal with a problem, then you’ll usually be referred to a hospital for tests, treatment, or to see a consultant with specialist knowledge.

NHS 111 is there for you when you have a healthcare need that is not life threatening. It is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

  • If you think you need to go to hospital
  • If you don’t know the most suitable place to go or call
  • If you don’t have a GP to call or if your GP practice is closed
  • If you need advice or reassurance about what to do

Available 24 hours a day, every day. Click here for NHS 111 online.

If you have a non-life-threatening illness or injury, there are lots of ways you can access advice and care without going to an Emergency Department. This allows emergency staff to concentrate on people with serious, life-threatening conditions and will save you a potentially long wait. Visit for same day, urgent, minor injuries or illness when your GP practice is unavailable, such as such as sprains and suspected broken bones

  • fractures and lacerations
  • insect and animal bites
  • stitches (sutures)
  • dressing care
  • minor cuts and bruises
  • minor burns and strains

Emergency department or call 999. Only for very serious or life-threatening situations. If you are unsure, call NHS 111.

Click here to find out when to call 999.