Cough and Chest Infection

Coughs / Chest infection

Coughing is the natural reflex to clear the respiratory tract of secretions. It can also be caused by irritation in the airways by dust, smoke, and gases or mucous. Some coughs are dry, some wet and some productive meaning lots of mucous, others are unproductive meaning irritating with no mucous production. The various forms of coughs depend on certain bugs and pre-existing conditions.

Causes of cough

Most coughs are caused by colds or flu. They usually come with other symptoms such as a runny nose, fever, sore throat, earache or general aches and pains.

Common causes of acute cough (lasting less than three weeks)

  • Upper respiratory tract (windpipe, nose and mouth) infections. - most common. Caused by infection with a germ (virus). They almost always get better within a week, without specific treatment. Symptoms may go on for up to three weeks.
  • Lower respiratory tract (lung) infections. - less common. They can lead to more serious lung infections such as bronchitis or pneumonia. Caused by infection with germs (viruses, bacteria or fungi).
  • Asthma. This causes wheeze, breathlessness and cough at night, in cold air and during exercise. An infection with a germ can make symptoms of asthma much worse.
  • Irritants - smoke or chemical fumes that you breathe in may irritate the airways

Common causes of subacute cough (lasting three to eight weeks)

  • Airway hyper-responsiveness – After an infection is gone, your airways are still swollen and irritable, causing you to keep coughing.
  • Whooping cough - intense, hacking bouts of coughing, which bring up thick phlegm with a  'whoop' sound with each sharp intake of breath after coughing
  • Other infections which may cause a longer-lasting cough, such as tuberculosis (TB).

Common causes of chronic cough (lasting more than eight weeks)

  • Postnasal drip.  Mucus in the nose drips down the back of the throat when you lie down. It can be due to allergies, hay fever and nasal polyps as well as infections.
  • Acid reflux. Acid in the stomach washes up the food pipe and spills into the airways.
  • Asthma. Undiagnosed or under-treated asthma causes cough.
  • Side-effects of medication.  Example ACE inhibitor medicines to treat high blood pressure.
  • Lung disease caused by smoking - chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
  • Irritants such as cigarette smoke. This may be your own cigarette smoke, or passive smoking.

Treatment

Treatment will depend on the likely cause of your cough.

If your cough is a result of a cold or flu, you do not need to see the doctor. 

There is no quick way of getting rid of a cough. It will usually clear up after your immune system has defeated the bug that is causing it. 

  • The simplest and cheapest way to ease a tickly or chesty cough is with any of the common over-the-counter remedies. 
  • Ask your pharmacist for advice regarding over the counter medicines.
    • DRY TICKLY COUGH: Take a linctus cough bottle to stop the cough
    • PRODUCTIVE CHESTY COUGH: Take an expectorant to help loosen up the phlegm
    • Cough medicines should never be taken for more than two weeks. 
  • If you feel unwell with a TEMPERATURE OR ACHES AND PAINS, paracetamol or ibuprofen may help
    • Some cough medicines contain paracetamol, be careful not to take more than the recommended paracetamol dosage especially if taking more than one type of medicine.
  • For a bacterial infection, you may be prescribed antibiotics. Antibiotics are only effective in killing bacteria, not viruses. Therefore are not used to treat a cough, unless you develop a secondary bacterial infection, such as pneumonia.
  • Stop smoking if you are a smoker.
  • Your Doctor may prescribe inhalers if you have asthma.
  • Your Doctor may prescribe a steroid nasal spray for postnasal drip.
  • Losing weight, cutting out acid foods and alcohol and taking medicine to stop acid in the stomach may all help acid reflux.

When to see the doctor or nurse

Most coughs will clear up within two weeks but may last up to three weeks – which is longer than a lot of people expect, see your doctor if: 

  • If cough is prolonged more than three weeks
  • If asthmatic
  • If difficulty with breathing or have a tight chest
  • Any wheeze or shortness of breath
  • Green phlegm, not resolving.

More information

Causes and management of coughing

Treating your different types of cough

All about coughs