Home > Health Library > Coughs, Age 12 and Older
Coughing is the body's way of removing
foreign material or mucus from the
lungs and upper airway passages or of reacting to an irritated airway. Coughs
have distinctive traits you can learn to recognize. A cough is only a symptom,
not a disease, and often the importance of your cough can be determined only
when other symptoms are evaluated.
For information about coughs in
children, see the topic
Coughs, Age 11 and Younger.
A productive cough produces phlegm
or mucus (sputum). The mucus may have drained down the back of the throat from
the nose or sinuses or may have come up
from the lungs. A productive cough generally should not be suppressed—it
clears mucus from the lungs. There are many causes of a productive cough, such
A nonproductive cough is dry and
does not produce sputum. A dry, hacking cough may develop toward the end of a
cold or after exposure to an irritant, such as dust or smoke. There are many
causes of a nonproductive cough, such as:
Many coughs are caused by a viral illness. Antibiotics
are not used to treat viral illnesses and do not alter the course of viral
infections. Unnecessary use of an antibiotic exposes you to the risks of an
allergic reaction and antibiotic side effects, such as
nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, rashes, and yeast infections. Antibiotics also may
kill beneficial bacteria and encourage the development of dangerous
evaluation of your health may help you identify other symptoms. Remember, a
cough is only a symptom, not a disease, and often the importance of your cough
can only be determined when other symptoms are evaluated. Coughs occur with
bacterial and viral respiratory infections. If you
have other symptoms, such as a sore throat, sinus pressure, or ear pain, see
the Related Topics section.
Check your symptoms to
decide if and when you should see a doctor.
Symptoms of difficulty breathing can range from mild to severe. For example:
Certain health conditions and medicines weaken the immune system's ability to fight off infection and
illness. Some examples in adults are:
If you're not sure if a fever is high, moderate, or mild,
think about these issues:
With a high fever:
With a moderate fever:
With a mild fever:
Temperature varies a little depending on how you measure it.
For adults and children age 12 and older, these are the ranges for high,
moderate, and mild, according to how you took the temperature.
Oral (by mouth) temperature
Ear or rectal temperature
Armpit (axillary) temperature
You have answered all the questions. Based on your answers, you may be
able to take care of this problem at home.
Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind
of care you may need. These include:
Based on your answers, you need
Call911or other emergency services now.
Based on your answers, you may need care right away. The problem is likely to get worse without medical care.
Based on your answers, the problem may not improve without medical
Based on your answers, you may need care soon. The
problem probably will not get better without medical care.
Symptoms of serious illness may
Pain in adults and older children
Severe trouble breathing means:
Moderate trouble breathing means:
Mild trouble breathing means:
Coughing is your body's way of
removing foreign substances and
mucus from your
lungs and upper airway passages. Productive coughs are often useful, and you
should not try to eliminate them. Sometimes, though, coughs are severe enough
to impair breathing or prevent rest. Home treatment can help you feel more
comfortable when you have a cough.
Cough preparations may help your
cough. Avoid cold remedies that combine medicines to treat many symptoms. It is
generally better to treat each symptom separately. There are two kinds of cough
medicines: expectorants and suppressants.
For more information on home treatment of respiratory
problems, see the Home Treatment section of the topic
Respiratory Problems, Age 12 and Older.
Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home
There is no sure way to prevent a cough.
To help reduce your risk:
To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.
You can help your
doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the
Current as of:
June 4, 2014
William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine & David Messenger, MD
How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.
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