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:
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:
- Respiratory tract infections, such as the common cold, seasonal flu, COVID-19, sinusitis laryngitis, whooping cough (pertussis), acute bronchitis, or pneumonia
- Seasonal allergies, such as allergic rhinitis or hay fever
- A flare-up of a long-term airway condition like asthma, chronic bronchitis, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Inhaled pollutants like dust, smoke, or chemical fumes
Depending on its cause, a short-term cough may persist and become a long-term cough.
A chronic (long-term) cough is one that lasts longer than 3 or 4 weeks. Common causes of a persistent cough include:
- Lingering respiratory infections like chronic bronchitis or long-term COVID-19
- Ever-present indoor allergies, such as household dust and pet dander
- Postnasal drip caused by a long-standing condition like rhinitis or sinusitis
- Uncontrolled asthma; often accompanied by wheezing or chest tightness
- Smoking; a smoker’s cough is a frequent symptom of COPD
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), or stomach acid irritating the airway
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:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain or tightness
- Non-stop coughing spells
- Whooping, wheezing, or barking
- Expelling thick, greenish-yellow phlegm
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.