A cough is one of the hallmark symptoms of COVID-19. But a cough is also a typical symptom of many other conditions, including the flu, the common cold, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and seasonal allergies.

If you’re coughing, you may wonder how you can tell whether it’s due to COVID-19 or a different condition. This article will look at some ways you may be able to tell the difference.

Research published in 2021 tried to study the sounds a person makes to determine whether they can detect COVID-19 via cough.

They were able to tell the difference between a person who coughs to, for example, clear their throat versus someone who coughs because they have an illness. But there isn’t a way to definitively diagnose COVID-19 by cough sound detection, according to a 2022 study.

About two-thirds of coughs related to COVID-19 are dry coughs that don’t produce mucus. This means that most coughs are going to be dry and hacking. With dry cough, it’s often hard to stop coughing once you start.

Still, you may sometimes cough up mucus when you have COVID-19.

These characteristics differ from a “normal” cough, where your body is trying to get rid of some kind of irritant. Such coughs are usually self-limiting and won’t continue throughout the day.

Can an app detect COVID-19 cough?

New artificial intelligence (AI) technology may be able to distinguish COVID-19 cough from other types of cough, according to 2020 research. Users of an AI app can submit cough sounds, which the app compares to a large database. Results are available within 2 minutes.

While this tool can’t make a clinical diagnosis, it can help people and doctors more effectively screen for COVID-19. Clinical trials are underway to help develop this technology.

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It’s difficult to tell by listening to your cough whether you have COVID-19 or something else. But COVID-19 is often accompanied by other hallmark symptoms.

The following chart breaks down some common symptoms of conditions that may cause you to cough. This chart may help you if you’re trying to determine whether your cough is due to COVID-19.

Cold FluAllergiesRSVCOVID-19
Onset 1–3 days after exposure1–4 days after exposuredepends on the season4–6 days after exposure2–14 days after exposure
Fever rarecommon nocommoncommon
Cough mild common sometimescommonusually dry
Nausea/Diarrheanosometimes no nosometimes
Additional symptomssneezing, sore throat, and runny or stuffy nosefatigue, body aches, and headachessore throat, runny nose, and sneezing runny nose, sneezing, sore throat, headachebody aches, fatigue, and loss of smell or taste

The most definitive way you’ll be able to tell is through testing. You can use tests that determine whether you have COVID-19, the flu, or both — and yes, you can get both COVID-19 and the flu, or another virus, at the same time.

You can also be tested for RSV with a rapid diagnostic test using a nasal swab.

While no specific tests exist for the common cold, they can sometimes help you rule out other conditions. If a healthcare professional rules out COVID-19, RSV, and flu, a cold could be a likely cause of your cough. Colds also tend not to last as long as the flu, RSV, or COVID-19.

If you have a cough related to COVID-19, you may experience chest discomfort and interrupted sleep — a concern when you’re trying to rest and recover.

Some methods you can use to specifically address your cough include:

  • Drink plenty of fluids throughout the day. This helps to keep your throat moist and reduces irritation.
  • Use a cool mist humidifier if the air in your home is very dry. You can also take a hot shower with the door closed to generate plenty of steam.
  • Consume cold or hot foods, like popsicles, warm tea, broth, or ice chips. These can all soothe irritated throats and reduce coughing.
  • Consider over-the-counter (OTC) cough drops or cough-reducing lollipops.
  • Consume a teaspoon of honey. (Infants younger than 1 year old should not consume honey for safety reasons.)

Using cough medication can be controversial if you have a wet cough that brings up mucus. If you suppress your cough, you may not get all the mucus up. Instead, you may wish to take a cough expectorant, which helps you cough the mucus up.

If you have a dry cough, which is typical with COVID-19, taking cough suppressants can help.

The following are some frequently asked questions about COVID-19 and coughing.

How long does COVID cough last?

According to a 2021 study involving people who’d been hospitalized for COVID-19, about 2.5% reported a cough that lasted 11.2 months after hospitalization.

While most people’s coughs don’t last quite this long, a 2021 research review found that about 19% of people experience a cough after they’ve gotten over most of the symptoms of COVID-19.

Coughing is a reflex that helps clear the airways of mucus, dust, and other irritants. A cough can also be a symptom of irritated airways. Even after recovering from COVID-19, your airways could take a little longer to heal.

Does COVID cough get worse at night?

Coughs tend to get worse at night for a few reasons.

If you have a runny nose, lying flat can worsen postnasal drip. This means the mucus runs down the back of your throat, irritating it and causing you to cough.

You may also notice your dry cough is worse at night because you’re usually indoors, where the air tends to be drier and more irritating to your airways. Using a cool mist humidifier may help reduce this occurrence. (But be sure to keep the humidifier clean and dry when not in use).

Is coughing up mucus typical in people with COVID-19?

According to a 2021 study, about 67% of participants with COVID-19 experienced a dry cough. A dry cough doesn’t bring up mucus. The other 33% report coughing up mucus or phlegm.

Can COVID-19 cause you to cough up blood?

Coughing up blood (hemoptysis) is a very rare symptom of COVID-19. About 1–5% of people with COVID-19 experience this symptom. It’s most common if your infection leads to pneumonia or if you have a pulmonary embolism at the same time, per 2020 research.

Hemoptysis can be a medical emergency. If you cough up more than a teaspoon of blood, consider connecting with a healthcare professional as soon as possible.

A COVID-19 cough is usually a dry cough. Other symptoms, such as fever and fatigue, tend to accompany it. Treating the cough with OTC methods can help you rest more easily as you recover.

Some signs may suggest that your COVID-19 cough could be serious. If you’re coughing up blood or if your cough makes you feel very short of breath, seek immediate medical attention.