A cough is a reflex action to clear your airways of mucus and irritants such as dust or smoke. Coughs may be dry or chesty. The cough is often worse at night. Coughing does not damage the lungs. Most coughs clear up within three weeks and treatment isn’t usually needed.
What causes a cough?
Most people with a short-term cough have a respiratory tract infection caused by a virus. This includes upper respiratory tract infections, such as a cold, flu, laryngitis, sinusitis or whooping cough, or lower respiratory tract infections, such as acute bronchitis and pneumonia (although this is rare). Coughs can occasionally be caused by non-infectious causes like asthma.
How should I treat my cough?
There’s no quick way of getting rid of a cough caused by a viral infection. It will usually clear up after your immune system has fought off the virus. The simplest and cheapest way to soothe a short-term cough may be a warm drink containing honey and lemon.
What about cough medicines?
Clinical trials have not found that cough medicines are any better than a placebo or dummy treatment. As cough medicines don’t make the cough get better any quicker, they are not provided as part of the Pharmacy First service.
Why do pharmacies sell cough medicines if they don’t work?
Although there is no good evidence that cough medicines make the cough get better any quicker, some people feel that they help their symptoms. As cough medicines are considered to be safe for the vast majority of adults and for children over six years old, cough medicines can be bought from pharmacies for patients to soothe their cough.
Children and babies with coughs
Over-the-counter cough and cold medicines shouldn’t be given to children under the age of six. There’s a potential risk of these medicines causing unpleasant side effects in children, such as allergic reactions, sleep problems or hallucinations (seeing and hearing things that aren’t real). Instead, give your child plenty to drink and if your child is over one, consider a warm drink of lemon and honey. Paracetamol and ibuprofen are not classed as cough and cold medicines and can still be given to children.
When should you (or your child) go back to your GP practice or contact NHS 111?
See your GP if you’ve had a cough for more than three weeks or if your cough is progressively getting worse. If you experience breathing difficulties, chest pain or you cough up blood, seek medical help immediately.
Within three to nine months of stopping smoking, you will no longer have a cough or wheeze and your breathing will have improved.
Antibiotics are not used to treat coughs because they kill bacteria, not viruses. Unless you develop a secondary bacterial infection, such as pneumonia, antibiotics will not usually be advised.
Get better without using antibiotics
How should I treat my cold?
- The best way to treat most colds, coughs or sore throats is to drink plenty of fluids and to rest.
- Colds can last about two weeks and may end with a cough and bringing up phlegm.
- Over the counter remedies, like paracetamol, can ease symptoms. Ask your pharmacist for advice.
- If the cold lasts more than three weeks, or you become breathless or have chest pains, or already have a chest complaint, see your doctor.
What about my children, they’re always getting coughs and colds?
It’s very common for children to get coughs and colds. Ask your pharmacist for advice. If the symptoms persist and you are concerned, see your doctor but don’t expect antibiotics.
Why should antibiotics not be used to treat coughs and colds?
All colds and most coughs and sore throats are caused by viruses. Antibiotics do not work against infections caused by viruses. Viral infections are more common than bacterial infections.
How long will my illness last?
Lasts on average
1 ½ weeks
2 ½ weeks
Cough or bronchitis
When should you (or your child) go to your GP practice or contact NHS 111?
These are listed in order of urgency, with the most urgent symptoms first.
- If you develop a severe headache and are sick.
- If your skin is very cold or has a strange colour, or you develop an unusual rash.
- If you feel confused or have slurred speech or are very drowsy.
- If you have difficulty breathing. Signs that suggest breathing problems can include:
- breathing quickly;
- turning blue around the lips and the skin below the mouth; and
- skin between or above the ribs getting sucked or pulled in with every breath.
5. If you develop chest pain.
- If you have difficulty swallowing or are drooling.
- If you cough up blood.
8. If hearing problems develop or if there is fluid coming out of your ears.
Key facts about antibiotics
- Antibiotics are medicines used to treat infections caused by bacteria.
- Colds and most coughs are caused by viruses not bacteria, so antibiotics will not help.
- If you take antibiotics when you don’t need them, they may lose their ability to kill bacteria.
- Antibiotics can upset your body’s natural balance of bacteria, resulting in diarrhoea and thrush.
- Some antibiotics can cause allergic reactions such as rashes, being sick if you also drink alcohol and reactions to sunlight – and other symptoms.