Many of us will fight through a cough, and choose to go to work even though there’s an annoying itch in the back of our throats. But, when does a cough become a serious issue—and how do we address it? Jaremy James, DO, internal medicine physician at Methodist Health Family Care on the Methodist Mansfield Medical Center campus, says a physician will consider when a cough started, how long it has been going on, the amount of mucus building up, and if it is progressively getting worse. The answers to those questions will create the treatment plan for the patient.
Coughing is simply a symptom; it isn’t the cause of something. More often than not, a cough lets you know your body is working to get rid of something that’s in excess in your system. It can be related to anything from a common cold to pneumonia.
If a cough goes away after a few days with the help of some throat lozenges and some over-the-counter medicine, there’s probably no need to contact a physician. The ones you should worry about keep you up at night because you’re constantly coughing and dealing with shortness of breath, or producing heavy amounts of mucus.
In fact, looking at the color of mucus can help a doctor pinpoint what your cough is trying to tell you. “A lot of people look funny at us when we say that,” Dr. James says. “But it kind of guides us, and tells us if this more an allergy, or if it’s something stronger.”
Clear mucus is probably related to an allergy, or the buildup of some nasal drainage. In those cases, it may not be something to worry about. A dark color or the presence of blood means it’s more likely related to something serious.
And of course, you should come in if your cold just won’t go away after a few days, even if you’re taking medicine. “When you come in, we’ll decide if it’s something viral or bacterial, and if we need to go with supportive care, or antibiotics,” Dr. James says.
Patients shouldn’t plan on getting antibiotics right away after taking a trip to see his or her doctor. A majority of coughs are related to viral infections, meaning antibiotics aren’t necessary. With that said, a visit with your primary care physician will help you better understand what you really do need to get better.
In some cases, you don’t want to completely get rid of your cough while fighting an infection. Dr. James says he encourages many of his patients to maintain coughs to clear some of the gunk out of their system, instead of letting it sit and fester before they’re completely healed.
For those of us who want to prevent a cough coming on, make sure to wash your hands often and to disinfect your surroundings. And remember, it’s always okay to ask your family and friends who do have a cough to cover their mouths with their elbows instead of their hands.
Got a cough that won’t stop? See one of our doctors at Methodist Urgent Care, with locations in Dallas and Mansfield.