Skip to main content

When a Cough Becomes a Concern

When a Cough Becomes a Concern

Coughing is a spontaneous reflex to foreign matter from your throat and airway. Like sneezing, blinking, and other involuntary reflexes, it’s one of your body’s key protective mechanisms against both irritants and foreign invaders.

While most coughs clear up in a couple of weeks without treatment, a cough that doesn’t go away, or one that’s accompanied by other symptoms like shortness of breath, excess mucus, or bloody phlegm, could indicate a more serious medical problem.

As urgent care experts who diagnose and treat patients with coughs almost every day at our walk-in clinic in Orangevale, California, our team at American River Urgent Care has put together a quick guide on coughs to help demystify this common symptom.

What causes acute and chronic coughs?

The occasional cough is a normal body function. Your throat and airway are very sensitive to irritating particles, and seek to dispel them quickly — at speeds that come close to 50 miles per hour — through coughing. It’s a near-instantaneous reaction that’s very effective.

But while occasional coughing helps clear immediate irritants from your throat and airway, a lingering cough is usually a sign of ongoing irritation from an illness, allergen, or pollutant. 

Ongoing coughs are often categorized based on how they sound or when they occur (barky cough vs. cough with wheezing; daytime cough vs. nighttime cough). No matter the specific attributes, all coughs fall into two general categories: 

Short-term coughs

A short-term (acute) cough is one that may last for a few days or a couple of weeks, but doesn’t last longer than 3 weeks. Most infection-related coughs fall into this category. Common causes of a short-term cough include:

Depending on its cause, a short-term cough may persist and become a long-term cough. 

Persistent coughs

A chronic (long-term) cough is one that lasts longer than 3 or 4 weeks. Common causes of a persistent cough include:

Less often, a persistent cough is a sign of a more serious medical condition like lung cancer, heart failure, or tuberculosis. 

When should I seek urgent care for a cough?

As you can see, there are many different types of coughs that develop for equally diverse reasons. As such, it can be hard to know when you should worry about a cough, or when a “typical” cough is actually one that may require treatment. 

Simply put, you should see our urgent care team anytime you or your child has a cough that concerns you. This includes:

Any persistent cough

Always seek medical evaluation and care for any cough that lasts longer than 3 weeks, even if it’s dry and non-productive. Expert care is especially important for a persistent cough that hasn’t gotten any better or seems to be getting worse. 

A short-term cough that occurs with other symptoms

Although most acute coughs are harmless and clear up without treatment, a short-term cough that’s accompanied by any of the following symptoms should be assessed by our team:

A cough that’s accompanied by flu- or COVID-like symptoms such as body aches, chills, and vomiting should be promptly assessed with a flu test or COVID-19 testing

Why is a proper cough diagnosis important?

While most short-term coughs require little more than rest and fluids, a concerning cough (persistent or short-term with other symptoms) calls for prompt evaluation. 

Your cough may be a symptom of an illness that benefits from prompt medical care, such as antiviral medication for the flu or COVID-19, or it may be a sign of an undiagnosed condition that requires an established treatment plan, such as asthma or allergies.

After determining the cause of your cough, our team offers recommendations and therapies to help you feel better and possibly get rid of the cough sooner. 

If you’re worried about a lingering cough, the team at American River Urgent Care can help. Call 916-287-8569 or click online to book a same-day visit at your convenience, or simply stop in any time during our normal business hours.

You Might Also Enjoy...

 Is It Too Late to Get My Seasonal Flu Shot?

Is It Too Late to Get My Seasonal Flu Shot?

You meant to get your seasonal flu vaccine back in September as recommended, but life got in the way. Now it’s February, and you’re wondering if it’s too late to get your flu shot. Luckily, it’s not — and here’s why you should still get one.
Can I Beat My Illness Without Antibiotics?

Can I Beat My Illness Without Antibiotics?

Antibiotics treat certain illnesses caused by bacterial infection. They can restore your health, prevent serious complications, and even safeguard your life. Find out when they’re necessary — and when they’re not. 

When to Seek Care for Your Cough

As one of the most common complaints during cold and flu season, a cough may resolve on its own in a relatively short amount of time — or it may linger and get worse. Here’s when to seek expert care for your cough.
How do Vaccinations Work?

How do Vaccinations Work?

Have you ever wondered how a vaccine protects you from disease-causing pathogens like bacteria and viruses? Here, we look in-depth at how vaccination boosts normal immune system function to keep you healthy.
What an X-ray Can Reveal About Your Heart 

What an X-ray Can Reveal About Your Heart 

If you arrive at our walk-in clinic with chest discomfort, shortness of breath, or leg swelling, we may recommend having a chest X-ray. Here’s what this quick and painless diagnostic imaging test can tell us about your heart. 
8 Signs of a Dislocated Shoulder

8 Signs of a Dislocated Shoulder

Your shoulders are the most mobile — and the least stable — joints in your body. As such, they’re more vulnerable to injury, including dislocation. Learn how this painful, joint-deforming injury occurs, and what kind of symptoms it causes.