What is your cough trying to tell you? We asked the experts

Got a cough that just won't go away? A respiratory expert explains how to tell whether it's just a temporary infection, or something worse.

It's the time of year when many people have bad coughs, and all too often will unwittingly pass them on to others.

But if your chestiness doesn't clear up after a few weeks, how can you tell whether you've got something more serious than a simple chest infection?

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Is it chronic?

Professor Alyn Morice, cough expert and head of Cardiorespiratory Studies at Hull York Medical School, explains that coughs fall into two categories: acute and chronic.

Acute coughs are short-term, lasting up to three weeks, and are usually the result of an upper respiratory tract infection such as the common cold.

Chronic coughs are persistent and may be the result of a condition such as asthma, or a lower respiratory tract infection like bronchitis.

“If your cough lasts longer than eight weeks, you should seek medical advice,” advises Morice.

“There are also certain 'red flags' such as coughing up blood, a wheeze which won't go away or chest pain, all of which warrant a trip to the doctor.

“Anyone who feels very ill, is losing weight, or is very lethargic should also consider that something else may be wrong.”

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Here's a list of both acute and chronic coughs:

Chesty cough

Causes: A chesty cough is caused by excessive mucus in the chest, produced to help clear the airways. The body’s natural response is to cough up the mucus and expel it from the body.

Symptoms: A heavy and tight chest, a rattling feeling within the chest, coughing up sticky mucus, and excess mucus in the airways.

Treatment: If the cough is causing irritation, an expectorant cough mixture can be used to help loosen the phlegm and make it easier to cough up.

Dry tickly cough

Causes: A dry cough which tickles the throat, doesn't produce mucus, and is usually a result of throat irritation.

Symptoms: The throat can become sore when swallowing due to inflammation in the upper airways.

Treatment: A demulcent which can help by coating the throat and soothing the passage of the upper respiratory tract.

Post-viral cough

Causes: A post-viral cough is the most common symptom of an upper respiratory tract infection such as a cold or flu. It can linger long after the cold virus has gone due to throat inflammation.

Symptoms: The throat becomes irritated and the cough is trigged by persistent sensitivity of the nerves.

Treatment: Most cases aren’t bacterial, so antibiotics won’t help. Look for a cough syrup with one of the key active ingredients dextromethorphan and menthol, suggests Professor Morice.

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Whooping cough

Causes: Symptoms usually appear around a week after infection, although this delay can last up to 21 days.

Symptoms: Initial mild, cold-like symptoms that develop over weeks into severe coughing fits that end with a ‘whooping’ sound, and ringing up thick phlegm. Babies and young children may also vomit after coughing.

Treatment: Vaccination is the key to controlling this disease, which can be very dangerous in young children. It's much less serious in older children and is rare in adults, and can be treated with antibiotics and over-the-counter remedies.

Bronchitis

Causes: An infection of the large airways and lungs, causing inflammation.

Symptoms: A hacking cough that brings up yellow-grey phlegm, and cold-like symptoms including a blocked nose, headache and tiredness.

Treatment: Professor Morice says most bronchitis symptoms can be managed at home with bed rest and lots of fluids to both prevent dehydration and thin the mucus. Aches and pains can be treated with paracetamol. Over-the-counter medicines that line your throat can help.

“Antibiotics should be reserved for those with chronic chest disease since it is almost invariably a virus in normal folk,” he advises.

Asthma

Causes: It’s not clear exactly what causes asthma, but it’s likely to be a combination of genetic and environmental factors that cause the bronchi that carry air in and out of the lungs to become more sensitive. The body responds with an allergic-type reaction.

Triggers can include allergens and irritants such as smoke and the weather.

Symptoms: Wheezing and a shortness of breath, plus a tight chest and cough.

Treatment: GPs will prescribe bronchodilators and anti-inflammatory inhaled steroids.

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Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

Causes: The primary cause is smoking. The smoke scars the lungs and causes the airways to thicken and more mucus is produced.

Symptoms: Breathlessness on exercise, a persistent phlegmy cough and frequent chest infections.

Treatment: Stop smoking. Become more active and eat a healthy diet to prevent infections.