What your cough could really mean (2024)

Most of us have experienced an annoying cough.

Whether it's caused by a cold or an allergy, most of the time it's not a sign of anything serious and should clear up within a couple weeks without treatment.

A cough is just a natural reflex action to clear our airways of mucus and irritants such as dust or smoke.

But if your cough won't budge, you're getting out of breath doing simple things and coughing up blood, it could be a sign of lung cancer, doctors say.

Here, MailOnline breaks down what different types of cough could be caused by and when it's time to see your GP.

A cold isn't the only cause of a dry cough, Dr Patel explains the irritating upper airways cough is also commonly caused by allergies, asthma or in some cases chronic acid reflux

A dry cough

If you have struggled to shake off a virus, potentially a cold or maybe even Covid, you'll be all too familiar with a dry cough.

London-based GP Dr Hana Patel told MailOnline: 'This can linger and be annoying, affecting people by interrupting their sleep at night.'

But the remnants of a cold isn't the only cause of a dry cough, which can create a frustrating tickly sensation at the back of the throat. Generally no phlegm or mucus is made, unlike that of a wet cough.

Typically they'll fade on their own within a few weeks.

Dry coughs that last longer than three weeks should be investigated in case it has another cause, experts say.

Dr Patel explained that dry coughs can also be caused by an allergy or asthma.

If sparked by an allergy, you might notice a tight sensation in your chest, shortness of breath and wheezing.

In some cases, acid reflux – when stomach acid travels towards the throat – can be to blame.

Dry coughs can be just as persistent as chesty ones, according to Dr Aimee Brame, consultant physician at London Bridge Hospital, part of HCA Healthcare.

Dr Brame, a respiratory specialist, added: 'They can be drier and come more from the throat rather than the chest.'

To get to the bottom of what is causing your dry cough, Dr Brame suggests keeping a diary to rule out any allergies.

'Keeping a diary of thing that make a cough worse can help,' she said.

'Some people find they have a terrible cough at home that goes away when they are at work.

'Something in your garden could be causing it, or it could be a pet.'

Dr Brame also says that getting rid of any dust in your home, especially under your bed, can also reduce your dry cough, especially if it is caused by an allergy.

Most people who get a wet cough would describe it as a chesty cough. It's usually caused by overproduction of phlegm or mucus due to an infection, the flu or a common cold

A wet chough

Most people who get a wet cough would describe it as a chesty cough.

It's usually caused by overproduction of phlegm or mucus due to an infection, the flu or a common cold.

If caused by a cold, Dr Patel suggests relieving symptoms at night by sleeping with an elevated head.

Drinking plenty of water to help loosen the mucus and make it easier to cough can also help ease a wet cough, according to the NHS.A hot lemon and honey drink is also though to relieve the sore throat that so often accompanies the tickle.

Although typically triggered by viral infections, the seasonal blight of hay fever can also cause a wet cough.

When the nose is irritated by pollen, it can send mucus production into overdrive.

Post-nasal drip – when the mucus slowly drips down the back of your throat – can trigger the need to cough.

'A post nasal drip can be associated with a dry or wet cough and it's the drip that needs to be treated, not the cough,' said Dr Brame.

Using a nasal spray and drinking plenty of water can also help relieve this.

However, a chesty cough isn't always caused by a cold or infection. In some cases, it can be caused by a heart condition.

'People may think about respiratory conditions, but there are other things within the chest that can cause coughs,' said Dr Brame. 'You can have a cough associated with cardiac problems, particularly if you have got some fluid on the chest.'

If you also have shortness of breath, ankle swelling and your symptoms are exacerbated by exercise, she suggests visiting your GP.

A chronic cough can have a range of causes including asthma, allergies, a post nasal drip and acid reflux. A persistent cough can also be a result of smoking

A chronic cough

If you have been putting up with a persistent cough for three weeks or more, you should visit the GP, the NHS says.

A chronic cough can have a range of causes, such as asthma, allergies, a post-nasal drip and acid reflux.

A persistent cough can also be a result of smoking.

Although rarer, it can be a sign of a more serious condition, such as lung cancer, heart failure, or tuberculosis, according to Dr Patel.

Dr Patel said: 'Patients tell me that it tends to be a dry cough with an irritation or tickling sensation.

'This is quite common but can affect people in their day to day life, sleeping at night, affect their appetite and eating.

'The cough can be triggered by talking, laughing, certain strong smells, irritants and changes in temperature.'

But it is important to be aware of the 'red flag' symptoms that could be a sign something more serious is at play.

Dr Brame saida persistent cough, weight loss, night sweats and also coughing up blood are 'red flags' and signs of lung cancer that need investigating by a doctor urgently.

Lung cancer strikes more than 43,000 people every year in the UK, according to the NHS. It is the deadliest type.

'It’s really difficult to tell what is a worrying cough and what isn’t.

'If you are worried about a cough that is usually a good enough reason to visit a GP,' said Dr Brame.

She stresses that if a cough is 'worrying or bothering you', it probably should be looked at.

Lung cancer mainly affects older people. The NHS reports that more than four out of 10 people diagnosed with lung cancer in the UK are aged 75 and over and that it is much rarer in people under 40.

Smoking is the most common cause of lung cancer, accounting for about 70 per cent of cases.

That's because when you smoke you regularly inhale hundreds of toxic substances.

People who haven't smoked can also develop lung cancer, however.


Lung cancer is one of the most common and serious types of cancer.

Around 47,000 people are diagnosed with the condition every year in the UK.

There are usually no signs or symptoms in the early stages of lung cancer, but many people with the condition eventually develop symptoms including:

- a persistent cough

- coughing up blood

- persistent breathlessness

- unexplained tiredness and weight loss

- an ache or pain when breathing or coughing

You should see a GP if you have these symptoms.

Types of lung cancer

There are two main forms of primary lung cancer.

These are classified by the type of cells in which the cancer starts growing.

They are:

- Non-small-cell lung cancer. The most common form, accounting for more than 87 per cent of cases.

- It can be one of three types: squamous cell carcinoma, adenocarcinoma or large-cell carcinoma.

- Small-cell lung cancer – a less common form that usually spreads faster than non-small-cell lung cancer.

- The type of lung cancer you have determines which treatments are recommended.

Who's affected

Lung cancer mainly affects older people. It's rare in people younger than 40.

More than four out of 10 people diagnosed with lung cancer in the UK are aged 75 and older.

Although people who have never smoked can develop lung cancer, smoking is the most common cause (accounting for about 72 per cent of cases).

This is because smoking involves regularly inhaling a number of different toxic substances.

Treating lung cancer

Treatment depends on the type of mutation the cancer has, how far it's spread and how good your general health is.

If the condition is diagnosed early and the cancerous cells are confined to a small area, surgery to remove the affected area of lung may be recommended.

If surgery is unsuitable due to your general health, radiotherapy to destroy the cancerous cells may be recommended instead.

If the cancer has spread too far for surgery or radiotherapy to be effective, chemotherapy is usually used.

There are also a number of medicines known as targeted therapies.

They target a specific change in or around the cancer cells that is helping them to grow.

Targeted therapies cannot cure lung cancer but they can slow its spread.

Source: NHS

What your cough could really mean (2024)
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