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 if you have a cough.
- drink plenty of fluids
- try to stay at home and avoid contact with other people if you have a high temperature or you do not feel well enough to do your normal activities
You could also try:
- paracetamol or ibuprofen to treat any pain
- hot lemon and honey (not suitable for babies under 1 year old)
- a herbal medicine called pelargonium (suitable for people aged 12 or over)
But there's limited evidence to show these work. Hot lemon with honey has a similar effect to cough medicines.
How to make a hot lemon and honey drink
- Squeeze half a lemon into a mug of boiled water.
- Add 1 to 2 teaspoons of honey.
- Drink while still warm (do not give hot drinks to small children).
A pharmacist can help if you have a cough
If you have a cough, 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 may help you cough less.
Decongestants and cough medicines containing codeine will not stop your cough.
Non-urgent advice: See a GP if:
- you've 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, the 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 rare
Antibiotics are not normally prescribed for coughs. A 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:
- 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 rarely a sign of something serious like lung cancer.
In this video, a GP describes the most common causes of coughs and how they can be treated.
Media review due: 1 May 2024
Page last reviewed: 12 January 2021
Next review due: 12 January 2024