What is a Cough?

What is a Cough?

A cough is a bodily reflex that clears substances stuck in the throat or airway. A cough can be caused by a foreign substance that causes irritation, an allergy, a short-term medical condition like a cold or a chronic condition such as asthma.

An occasional cough is normal, but a persistent cough that lasts a few weeks or involves bloody mucus or other symptoms may require medical attention. This type of cough might signify a more serious condition.

Types of Coughs


Coughs can be described in several ways, including:

  • How long the cough lasts
    • Acute coughs last up to three weeks
    • Subacute coughs last more than three weeks and up to eight weeks
    • Chronic cough is a cough that continues for more than eight weeks
    • Refractory cough is a chronic cough that is not responding to treatment
  • How the cough sounds, which may be a sign of a specific condition, including barking or whooping
  • If mucus is present. Productive cough, also called a wet cough, is a cough that brings up mucus or phlegm, whereas nonproductive cough does not bring up mucus or phlegm.

Signs & Symptoms of Cough


Cough is a symptom of many conditions. A primary care doctor or pediatric primary care doctor can help address the cough and, if needed, will refer the patient to a specialist to diagnose and treat coughs and the condition that caused them.

What Causes a Cough?


A cough can be caused by many substances that cause irritation or allergies. Coughing can be a symptom of a short-term disease or bacterial infection, such as a cold, or a chronic medical condition, such as asthma or chronic bronchitis.

Causes of coughs include:

When to See a Doctor

When to See a Doctor

Most coughs are not serious and go away on their own. You should talk with your primary care doctor if you experience the following:

  • Coughs for more than a few weeks
  • A cough that is worsening
  • Fever
  • Wheezing
  • Recently lost weight
  • Lumps in the neck
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Vocal changes
  • Coughing blood

Get immediate care if you or someone else is:

  • Choking
  • Having difficulty breathing
  • Having chest pain
  • Spitting a lot of blood when coughing

Cough Prevention


Coughs often cannot be prevented. Sometimes, however, avoiding irritants that can cause coughing, such as smoking, can reduce your likelihood of developing a cough. Coughs as a symptom of preventable conditions may be avoided by protecting yourself from that health condition as much as you can, for example, by getting a flu vaccine.  

You can help prevent coughing by:

  • Avoiding smoking
  • Washing their hands with soap and water often
  • Getting vaccinated for influenza (flu), pneumonia, and COVID-19
  • Avoiding close contact with people with the flu and other contagious diseases
  • Wearing a mask in indoor public spaces and on public transportation
Get Care

Trust NewYork-Presbyterian for Cough Care

At NewYork-Presbyterian, we are experienced in caring for a diverse population of patients, and we offer services for adults, children, adolescents, and older patients of all backgrounds.

Our primary care services of family medicine doctors, internists, and pediatricians are available at more than 15 practices throughout Manhattan. Same-day appointments are available for urgent needs. Scheduling is easy — we offer early, late, and weekend hours, and we accept most insurance plans.

Learn more about our primary care locations and contact us to make an appointment or schedule a virtual urgent care visit.