With adults getting around two to five colds per year and children roughly seven to 10, it's little wonder that coughs are among the most common reasons for a visit to your Doctor. However, there's no cure for a cold so rather than risking infecting people in the doctor's surgery, you're usually better off staying home and recovering there. 

What is a cough?

A cough is a sudden and forced expulsion of air from the throat. Acute coughs last up to three weeks, while a chronic cough is present for at least eight weeks. Coughs can be either dry, with a tickling feeling at the throat, or chesty. Coughs may change from dry, to chesty, and back to dry during the course of a cold.

What are the causes of a cough?

Some causes of an acute cough are:

• Viral infections, like the common cold or bacterial influenza
• A bacterial infection, possibly giving rise to a chest infection
• An acute allergic reaction

A chronic cough can be caused by:

• Asthma
• Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
• Stomach acid reflux disease
• Allergic rhinitis, or hayfever
• Smoking
• Other conditions which require referral to a Doctor

How can I treat my cough?

Most coughs will get better on their own, though they may take a few weeks to clear up. There are some simple measures you can take to help soothe your cough, especially at night. It is important to rest and drink plenty of water in the initial days of developing a cough. Rest and good hydration create the best conditions to help the body concentrate on healing. Avoid specific triggers that make your cough worse. These include cold temperatures, wind and cigarette smoke. Talking or laughing can also cause a bout of coughing. In bed, you can try elevating your head and shoulders with pillows to help you sleep easier. Drinking some hot honey and lemon, and inhaling steam can help soothe an irritated throat. 

Are there any medicines I can take?

If you need to take medicine for your cough, ask your pharmacist for advice to guide you through the large range of cough preparations which come in liquid or tablet form.

Most cough preparations contain one or more of the following:

• Cough suppressants
• Mucolytics that help you bring up phlegm
• Antihistamines which can help stop a runny nose that may be causing a post-nasal drip, resulting in tickling in the throat and making you cough
• Decongestants to help with a blocked nose
• Paracetamol or ibuprofen which help bring down a fever and treat a headache

Your pharmacist will take your symptoms and medical history into account to find a treatment that is suitable for you. If your cough is caused by asthma, make sure that you take your prescribed inhalers regularly. Check if your inhalers need a spacer device to work better – if you're unsure how to use yours, ask your pharmacist for advice.

When should I see my Doctor?

Make an appointment with your Doctor if:

• You have a persistent cough. Always visit your Doctor if you have a cough that lasts more than three weeks
• Your cough gets worse
• You bring up blood with your mucus, or if you have yellow or greenish phlegm
• You feel short of breath
• You have unexplained weight loss
• You have chest pain – although if this is severe, you should dial 999 for an ambulance
• You have a chronic health problem (e.g. diabetes)

What are the next steps?

• Rest and avoid triggers that cause a cough
• Check if you can take a cough preparation to help soothe your cough
• If you get short of breath or your cough gets worse, see your Doctor