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Types of coughs and chest infections

Woman wearing scarf coughing into her hand deciding on the types of coughs and chest infection
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Colds and flu often cause a short-term cough or, in some cases, can be followed by a chest infection. A cough is a reflex action that helps to clear your airways of mucus. It can be a symptom of other conditions, including a chest infection.

Having a cough can be uncomfortable, but you don’t have to just live with it. Read on to learn more about coughs and chest infections, what causes them, and what treatments are available to help ease your symptoms.

Types of cough

Coughs can be typically categorised in three ways – acute, subacute and chronic coughs. 

 

Acute

Subacute

Chronic

Duration

Less than 3 weeks

3-8 weeks

8+ weeks

Causes

Possible causes:

  • Allergies
  • Cold/flu
  • Covid-19
  • Sinus infection

 (If you suspect whooping cough or pneumonia, seek medical advice immediately.)

Possible causes:

  • Post infectious cough
  • Allergies
  • Asthma
  • Infection
  • Whooping cough
  • Tuberculosis (TB)

Possible causes:

  • Postnasal drip
  • Laryngopharyngeal reflux (LPR)
  • Side-effect of certain medications
  • Smoking
  • Pneumonia

(Can also be a symptom of an underlying condition, such as lung cancer, COPD or heart failure. Seek medical advice.)

Treatments

Most acute coughs resolve within 3-4 weeks. Over the counter cough treatments can ease symptoms.

If you are worried by a cough, or have other symptoms, seek medical advice.

Some subacute coughs resolve by themselves - such as allergy coughs, which may only occur at certain times of the year.  The underlying cause of the cough may need treatment, before the cough will subside.

Treatment depends on the cause.

 

Causes of a cough

Whilst most coughs are caused by a common cold or flu, a new continuous dry cough or a high temperature could be coronavirus (COVID-19). If you have any of the main symptoms of coronavirus, you need to get a test as soon as you can and stay at home until you get the results.

Some other common causes include:

Book your pneumonia jab

How long does a cough last?

Most (acute) coughs will go away on their own within 3-4 weeks, but having plenty of rest, keeping warm and drinking water can help relieve the symptoms. A cough syrup could also help soothe your throat, or you could try lozenges dissolved slowly in the mouth to temporarily stop coughs and lubricate an irritated throat.

If your cough persists beyond 3 weeks, you should contact your doctor.

How to treat a cough?

Some coughs require no treatment, and whilst annoying, will clear up on their own. If the cough is causing pain or irritation you can try some over the counter remedies such as cough syrups or lozenges. These won’t cure a cough, but it can ease the symptoms, and soothe irritation. Check with your pharmacist, as not all products are suitable for everyone – especially children.

You might treat the cough at home, with honey and lemon, (honey is not suitable for children under 12 months), rest and fluids. If your cough is lasting longer than 3 weeks, or you have a continuous cough for more than 10 days, see your doctor.

In some cases, a cough can be a symptom of a serious illness and require emergency treatment:

  • Severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis)
  • Asthma attack
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Choking/obstructed airway
  • Whooping cough (pertussis)
  • Pneumonia
  • Coughing up blood

If you suspect any of these, contact medical advice immediately, as these can be life-threatening conditions.

Chest infections

A chest infection is an infection in the lungs and/or airways. This can lead to a chesty cough, wheezing and shortness of breath, along with pain or discomfort. Some chest infections are mild and may resolve on their own, but others can be serious, like bronchitis or pneumonia. In some cases these can be life-threatening.

Symptoms of a chest infection

These symptoms can be unpleasant, but they usually get better on their own in about 7-10 days, although the cough and mucus can last up to 3 weeks.

If you suspect you’re experiencing a chest infection then speak to your pharmacist as you may need to see a doctor.

It’s important to see your GP if:

  • Your symptoms get worse
  • You cough up blood
  • It’s lasted more than 3 weeks
  • You’re pregnant
  • You’re over 65
  • Your immune system is weak
  • You have a long-term health condition such as diabetes or asthma
  • The chest infection is in a young child

How to recover from a chest infection

Top tips:

  • Get plenty of rest
  • Drink lots of water
  • Use an air humidifier or inhale steam from a bowl of hot water
  • Raise your head up while sleeping using extra pillows
  • Use paracetamol to help bring down a fever, ease headaches and muscle pain

For more advice on how to treat a cough or chest infection, come in-store and speak to one of our pharmacists who will be able to find the right treatment for you.

References

www.hey.nhs.uk/patient-leaflet/help-chronic-cough
www.nhsinform.scot/illnesses-and-conditions/lungs-and-airways/cough
www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/symptoms/main-symptoms
www.nhs.uk/conditions/cough
www.nhsinform.scot/illnesses-and-conditions/infections-and-poisoning/chest-infection
www.nhs.uk/conditions/chest-infection