Coughing is a form of self-protection. A cough is your body’s way of expelling irritants, pathogens, mucus, and other fluids from your airway, and it’s an automatic reflex, such as sneezing or blinking.
Coughs are powerful forces: They move air through your throat at speeds near 50 miles per hour. It’s normal to cough occasionally, or when you have a minor respiratory illness, such as a cold.
Most coughs due to minor illnesses clear within two weeks. However, if your cough lasts longer, it could be a sign of a problem, such as an allergy, asthma, or even a serious infection or other condition.
Catherine Fuller, MD, is an allergy, asthma, and immunology specialist who urges you to pay attention to coughs that hurt or those that linger. At our Brentwood office in West Los Angeles, California, she determines the cause of your cough and recommends customized treatments.
When is a cough more than just a natural clearing of the throat? Here are some examples of when and why you should seek medical care for a cough.
Your cough doesn’t go away
If your cough doesn’t clear up after two weeks, seek medical care. Chronic coughs may be due to a lower respiratory tract infection. Without treatment, they can cause bronchitis or even develop into pneumonia. A chronic cough also could be the sign of a serious lung disease or a symptom of long COVID.
Your chest hurts and you have trouble breathing
When your lung deflates, you may feel sudden, sharp pain in your chest. A collapsed lung, also called pneumothorax, usually leaves you feeling short of breath. If you have a cough with chest pain, see a doctor right away.
Shortness of breath with a cough can be serious. It could be a sign of heart failure that leads to fluid buildup in the lungs or a pulmonary embolism. Head straight to the nearest emergency room if you have trouble breathing.
You have a fever or headache
A cough with a fever may be a sign of a lower or upper respiratory tract infection. If your cough is accompanied by a persistent headache or you have other symptoms, see your doctor.
You’re drowsy or confused
Coughing combined with fatigue, sleepiness, or mental confusion could be a sign of a serious condition that needs immediate treatment. Some conditions marked by this combination include:
- Low blood sugar
- Congestive heart failure
- Diabetic ketoacidosis
- Aspirin poisoning
- Medication side effect
- Drug overdose
- Sleep apnea
You might also have a middle ear infection. A healthy middle ear helps you maintain balance and keeps you from falling, and if you’re having balance issues, ask someone to help you get to Dr. Fuller or the emergency room.
You cough up blood or phlegm
Coughing up blood could be a sign of bronchitis or a much more serious condition. Some diseases and conditions that cause you to cough up blood include:
- Lung cancer
- Parasitic infection
- Cystic fibrosis
- Lung abscess
Contact us immediately if you cough up blood. Another sign that you need medical care is coughing up phlegm that’s yellowish or green.
Don’t dismiss a cough if it's accompanied by other symptoms or lasts for more than two weeks. Phone our friendly team at 310-828-7978 or use our online form to request an appointment today for cough evaluation and treatment.