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Cough

A cough will usually clear up on its own within 3 to 4 weeks.

How you can treat a cough yourself

There's usually no need to see a GP.

You should:

  • rest
  • drink plenty of fluids

You could also try:

  • hot lemon and honey (not suitable for babies under 1 year old)
  • a herbal medicine called pelargonium (suitable for people aged 12 or over)

There's limited evidence to show these work.

How to make a hot lemon and honey drink
  1. Squeeze half a lemon into a mug of boiled water.
  2. Add 1 to 2 teaspoons of honey.
  3. Drink while still warm (do not give hot drinks to small children).

Hot lemon with honey has a similar effect to cough medicines.

You can ask a pharmacist about:

  • cough syrup
  • cough medicine (some cough medicines should not be given to children under 12)
  • cough sweets

These will not stop your cough, but will help you cough less.

Decongestants and cough medicines containing codeine will not stop your cough.

Non-urgent advice: See a GP if:

  • you have had a cough for more than 3 weeks (persistent cough)
  • your cough is very bad or quickly gets worse – for example, you have a hacking cough or cannot stop coughing
  • you feel very unwell
  • you have chest pain
  • you're losing weight for no reason
  • the side of your neck feels swollen and painful (swollen glands)
  • you find it hard to breathe
  • you have a weakened immune system – for example, because of chemotherapy or diabetes

See a GP urgently if you're coughing up blood.

What happens at your appointment

To find out what's causing your cough, your GP might:

  • take a sample of any mucus you might be coughing up
  • order an X-ray, allergy test, or a test to see how well your lungs work
  • refer you to hospital to see a specialist, but this is very rare

Important

Antibiotics are not normally prescribed for coughs.

Your GP will only prescribe them if you need them – for example, if you have a bacterial infection or you're at risk of complications.

What causes coughs

Most coughs are caused by a cold or flu.

Other causes include:

  • smoking
  • heartburn (acid reflux)
  • allergies – for example, hay fever
  • infections like bronchitis
  • mucus dripping down the throat from the back of the nose

A cough is very rarely a sign of something serious like lung cancer.

Media last reviewed: 14 May 2018
Media review due: 9 May 2021

Page last reviewed: 18 December 2017
Next review due: 18 December 2020