Woman holding chest and coughing; learn about cough care.

When a cough is more than a cough

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Many of us will try to ignore a cough and choose to go to work even when there’s an annoying itch in the back of our throats. But when does a cough become a serious issue — and how do we address it?

Jaremy James, DO, internal medicine physician at the Methodist Family Health Center on the Methodist Mansfield Medical Center campus, says a physician considers four factors:

  1. When a cough started
  2. How long it has been going on
  3. The amount of mucus building up
  4. If it is progressively getting worse

The answers to those questions will help a physician create a treatment plan.

A cough is usually a symptom that lets you know your body is working to get rid of an excess of something in your system. It can be related to anything from a common cold to pneumonia.

When to call about that cough

If a cough goes away after a few days with the help of some throat lozenges and over-the-counter medicine, there’s probably no need to call your physician. You should call your physician if you’re having shortness of breath, producing heavy amounts of mucus, or if your cough is keeping you up at night.

In fact, looking at the color of mucus can help a doctor pinpoint what your cough is trying to tell you.

“A lot of people look at us funny when we say that,” Dr. James says. “But it kind of guides us and tells us if this is more of an allergy, or if it’s something more serious.”

Clear mucus is probably related to an allergy or the buildup of some nasal drainage. In that case, it may not be something to worry about. A dark color or the presence of blood means it’s more likely related to something serious, like pneumonia.

And, of course, you should come in if your cough just won’t go away after a few days, even if you’re taking medicine.

“When you come in, we’ll decide if it’s something viral or bacterial and if we need to provide supportive care or antibiotics,” Dr. James says.

ANTIBIOTICS OR NOT?

Patients shouldn’t plan on getting antibiotics right away after an office visit with a provider. The majority of coughs are related to viral infections, meaning antibiotics aren’t necessary. A visit with your primary care physician will help you understand what you need to get better.

In some cases, you don’t want to completely get rid of your cough while fighting an infection. Dr. James says he encourages many of his patients to maintain coughs to clear some of the mucus out of their system.

PREVENTION IS KEY

To prevent a cough coming on, wash your hands often and disinfect your surroundings. And remember, it’s OK to ask your family and friends who have a cough to cover their mouths with their elbows instead of their hands.

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