Acute coughs are often caused by a minor illness and go away within a few weeks, while chronic coughs may be a symptom of something more serious.

A cough is a reflex that your body uses to clear your airways and protect your lungs from foreign materials and infection.

You may cough in response to many different irritants. Some common examples include:

  • pollen
  • smoke
  • infections

While occasional coughing is normal, sometimes it can be caused by a more serious condition that needs medical attention. That’s why it’s important to know when to see a doctor or healthcare professional for a cough.

There are different classifications of coughs. These are based on the length of time the cough has been present.

  • Acute cough: Acute coughs last less than 3 weeks. In some cases, such as after a respiratory infection, a cough can linger between 3 and 8 weeks. This is called a subacute cough.
  • Chronic cough: A cough is considered chronic when it lasts longer than 8 weeks in adults and more than 4 weeks in children.

Acute coughs can be caused by:

  • environmental irritants such as smoke, dust, or fumes
  • allergens such as pollen, pet dander, or mold
  • upper respiratory tract infections such as the common cold, the flu, or a sinus infection
  • lower respiratory infections such as bronchitis or pneumonia
  • exacerbations of a chronic condition such as asthma
  • more serious conditions such as pulmonary embolism

Chronic coughs can be caused by:

Coughs can also be classified as productive or nonproductive.

  • Productive cough: Also called a wet cough, it brings up mucus or phlegm.
  • Nonproductive cough: Also called a dry cough, it doesn’t produce any mucus.

A cough is a common symptom of coronavirus disease 19 (COVID-19), the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2).

The incubation period for COVID-19 can be between 2 to 14 days with an average of 5 to 6 days.

A cough that’s associated with COVID-19 is usually dry. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that in some cases, it can be wet.

If you have a mild case of COVID-19, you may choose to use cough medications or other home remedies to help ease your cough.

Along with a cough, other possible symptoms of COVID-19 include:

When to get emergency care for COVID-19

Some people may develop severe disease due to COVID-19. This typically happens 2 to 14 days after symptoms begin. Symptoms of serious COVID-19 illness that you should get immediate medical attention for include:

  • difficulty breathing
  • pain or pressure in your chest that’s persistent
  • your lips or face appear blue in color (those with lighter skin tones)
  • your lips face appear white or gray (those with darker skin tones)
  • mental confusion
  • trouble staying awake or difficulty waking

An acute cough that’s caused by an irritant, allergens, or an infection will usually clear up within a few weeks.

But it’s a good idea to follow-up with a doctor if it lasts longer than 3 weeks or occurs along with any of the following symptoms:

Get emergency care for any cough that’s accompanied by:

If you have a mild cough, there are some things that you can do at home to help ease your symptoms. Some remedies include the following:

  • Over-the-counter (OTC) cough medications: If you have a wet cough, an OTC expectorant such as guaifenesin (Mucinex) may help loosen up mucus from your lungs. Another option is an antitussive medication such as dextromethorphan (Robitussin), which suppresses your cough reflex. Avoid giving these medications to children under 6 years of age.
  • Cough drops or throat lozenges: Sucking on a cough drop or a throat lozenge can help ease a cough or irritated throat. But don’t give these to young children, as they can be a choking hazard.
  • Warm drinks: Teas or broths can thin your mucus and reduce irritation. Warm water or tea with lemon and honey may also help. Honey shouldn’t be given to children under 1 year old due to the risk of infant botulism, a rare but potentially fatal illness.
  • Extra moisture: Adding additional humidity to the air may help soothe your throat when it becomes irritated from coughing. Try using a humidifier or standing in a warm, steamy shower.
  • Avoid environmental irritants: Try to stay away from things that could lead to further irritation. Examples include cigarette smoke, dust, and chemical fumes.

These home remedies should only be used for mild coughs. If you have a cough that’s persistent or happens with other concerning symptoms, get medical attention.

If you do get medical care for your cough, a doctor will often treat it by addressing the underlying cause. Some examples of treatment include:

Some medications, such as benzonatate, may also be used to reduce your coughing reflex.

If you have an acute cough, it should improve within a few weeks. But if your cough is due to an underlying chronic condition, it may take longer to see improvements.

The following are some symptoms your cough may be getting better:

  • mucus that’s thinner and less frequent
  • coughing fits that are shorter and less severe
  • less of a need for cough suppressants
  • no fever or other concerning symptoms

If your cough is due to an infection, you may also notice that other symptoms such as congestion or a runny nose have improved.

Below are some frequently asked questions about when to see a doctor for your cough.

How long does a cough last?

An acute cough caused by an infection or irritant will usually improve within 3 weeks. But a chronic cough typically lasts longer than 8 weeks in adults and 4 weeks in children.

What is the difference between a wet and dry cough?

A wet cough brings up mucus from your lungs, while a dry cough doesn’t. A wet cough may be a symptom of an infection, while a dry cough is often due to irritation.

How long does phlegm last?

Phlegm, the thick mucus that’s coughed up, typically lasts as long as the underlying condition. For example, if you have a cold, the phlegm may last for a week or two. But if you have bronchitis, it may take several weeks to months for the mucus to clear.

Can a cough be a symptom of something serious?

A cough with no other symptoms is usually not a cause for concern. But it can be a symptom of a more serious condition such as pneumonia or bronchitis. If your cough is accompanied by other concerning symptoms, such as fever, shortness of breath, or chest pain, get medical attention.

Coughs are common and can be either acute or chronic. Additionally, some coughs may produce mucus, while others may not.

A wide variety of factors can cause a cough. Some examples include environmental irritants, respiratory infections, or chronic conditions such as asthma or COPD.

A cough is also a common symptom of COVID-19.

At-home care can often ease a cough. But sometimes a cough needs to be tested by a healthcare professional.

Call a doctor if your cough lasts longer than 3 weeks or if it’s accompanied by symptoms such as:

  • fever
  • discolored mucus
  • shortness of breath

Some symptoms could mean a medical emergency. Get immediate attention for a cough that happens alongside one or more of the following symptoms:

  • trouble breathing
  • high fever
  • coughing up blood