When should you see a doctor about a cough?

When you have a cough, air will get expelled as a result of some irritant. This is usually involuntary, and it is reflex action taken by the body to clear up your airways of mucus and irritants (e.g. smoke and dust).

There are two main types of coughs:

  • A wet cough (or productive cough) – Generates phlegm or mucus
  • A dry cough – Doesn’t generate phlegm, often caused by a tickly throat

What causes a cough?

Viruses usually cause most coughs. They typically inflame the throat, windpipe or lungs. On average, a cough lasts for up to about three weeks. In most cases, they fade on their own without any medication. This is because the body is usually fighting off the infection. If a virus causes a cough, antibiotics won’t help.

Antibiotics only help if bacteria caused the cough. These coughs tend to make a person more unwell than a viral cough.

The most common causes of a cough in adults are:

  • Influenza (the flu)
  • Allergies
  • Asthma
  • Viral upper respiratory infections
  • Bacterial pneumonia and bronchitis
  • Lung cancer
  • Smoking
  • Post nasal drip
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Some medication side effects


How long should a cough last?

An average person in Australia will get 2-4 coughs in a year, and these will typically fade in less than three weeks. If your cough lasts for longer than three to eight weeks (four in children), it is considered ‘chronic’.

When to see a doctor about a cough

If your cough is chronic or accompanied by other symptoms, do not self-diagnose. See a doctor for an accurate examination, prescription, and advice on potential risks.

One of the cases, when you should see a doctor, is when you have a chronic cough as described above. In such a case, you will need to work with your doctor so you can be accurately diagnosed and know the cause of the cough.

You should also see a doctor if:

Your cough is severe or is just getting worse day by day

  • You’re coughing up blood
  • You’re having chest pain
  • You’re experiencing shortness of breath or breathing difficulties
  • You’re taking medicine for another illness
  • A cough is accompanied by some other symptoms such as a rash or an ongoing headache

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What will the doctor do about your cough?

A GP will be able to examine and carefully diagnose your cough. First, the doctor will ask about the symptoms before performing a physical examination. Depending on the seriousness of your cough, he may recommend;

  • Sputum analysis
  • A chest X-ray
  • Lung function test
  • Blood tests

Your doctor will only prescribe antibiotics for your cough if there is a high likelihood they will make a difference.

Next steps

HealthEngine can help you find and book an appointment with your regular GP or another experienced professional at a practice near you.


This article is for informational purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice. If in doubt, HealthEngine always recommends consulting with a registered health practitioner.

A: Use HealthEngine to find and book your next GP appointment. Click on the following locations to find a GP clinic in your state or territory.


This article is for informational purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice. If in doubt, HealthEngine recommends consulting with a registered health practitioner.