Chronic cough: when it’s time to see a doctor

Written by: Dr Grace Robinson
Edited by: Cameron Gibson-Watt

A persistent cough that won’t go away can not only be bothersome, it can interrupt your sleep, affect your day-to-day life and lead to further health complications if not treated.


But how long should you have to put up with your cough and when should you take it seriously? Dr Grace Robinson, a leading specialist in pulmonology and respiratory medicine in Reading, provides us with some answers.



What defines a chronic cough?

A chronic cough is a cough that lasts more than eight weeks.


A regular cough is usually caused by a viral infection and is short-lived. While most can take up to four weeks to clear up completely, some coughs can linger for much longer, which can indicate that there is something more serious going on.


What causes a chronic cough?

Most coughs start from a viral infection, but some acute cases fail to improve and can become chronic. Some of the most common causes of a chronic cough are:



If you are a smoker and you notice a change in your cough, you should take it seriously and see your doctor. Smoking damages your lungs and can lead to COPD and lung cancer.


When should you see a doctor about a persistent cough?

You should see a doctor if you have had a cough for more than eight weeks. Likewise, if you have had a cough for less time and you are not feeling well - you have a fever, are noticing weight loss or having trouble sleeping - it could be something more serious so you should see a doctor.


How is a chronic test diagnosed?

After a medical history and physical examination are done, your doctor may refer you on to undergo imaging tests, such as X-rays or CT scans. These scans can check your lungs for pneumonia, lung cancer, chronic lung diseases and infections.


A lung function test may also be used to diagnose asthma and COPD. This test measures how much air you can hold in your lungs and how quickly you can exhale it. If a diagnosis isn’t possible from these tests, you may need to have a special scope test done, which may include a bronchoscopy or rhinoscopy.


What type of treatments might you offer patients?

The treatment for your chronic cough depends on the underlying cause and there is a variety of these that could be used:


  • Antibiotics - if your cough is caused by a bacterial infection, then you may be prescribed antibiotics to clear it up
  • Asthma drugs - inhalers with corticosteroids can help reduce inflammation and open your airways
  • Antihistamines and decongestants - these medications can help treat allergies and postnasal drip


If you are a smoker, your doctor will talk to you about quitting and can assist with this.


Are there any home treatments available?

You should follow the treatment plan your doctor has made for you, but there are some home remedies and over-the-counter medications that can help. These will not help treat the underlying cause but may help ease your cough:


  • Drink warm liquids to thin the mucus in your throat
  • Use a humidifier to add moisture to the air or take long, hot showers
  • Avoid smoking and second-hand smoke
  • Take honey to help loosen your cough
  • Suck on cough and cold lozenges to soothe your throat 


Worried about your cough? Make an appointment with Dr Grace Robinson by going to her Top Doctors profile.

By Dr Grace Robinson
Pulmonology & respiratory medicine

Dr Grace Robinson is a leading specialist in Pulmonology and Respiratory Medicine based in Reading. Her areas of expertise include acute and chronic cough, breathlessness, asthma, lung infections, COPD, lung cancer, sleep apnoea and snoring. She also has a sub-specialty interest in sleep and ventilation and bronchiectasis.

Dr Robinson qualified from St Mary's Hospital Medical School at the University of London in 1995 and went on to complete her general medical and respiratory training in Oxford. During her six years of training in Oxford, she held a position as a research training fellow at the Oxford Centre for Respiratory Medicine where she researched the cardiovascular effects of sleep apnoea and was awarded her Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree.

Since then, she has obtained a position as an NHS consultant in General and Respiratory Medicine at the Royal Berkshire Hospital and is a member of the British Thoracic Society Sleep Specialist Advisory Group. She also currently practices privately at the Spire Dunedin Hospital in Reading specialising in outpatient consultations for the diagnosis and management of all respiratory conditions.

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