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Diagnosing and Treating Cough

Your doctor will work with you to find the reason for your cough as well as the best treatment.

What to Expect

Most coughs will go away on their own after a respiratory infection is resolved with or without specific treatment. A cough that doesn't go away will need medical attention.

One of the most important things when dealing with cough is to determine if an acute or more serious disease is the cause. Luckily, the vast majority of acute cough causes are mild upper respiratory tract infections such as common cold.

Warning signs associated with a cough that may indicate a more serious disease or condition include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Rash / facial swelling
  • Coughing up blood (hemoptysis)
  • Rapid breathing
  • Fevers

Your doctor will obtain a detailed history and perform a physical exam to find out the cause of your cough, to order the necessary tests and to begin treatment. Remember to keep a record of your cough and bring the list of all the medications you are taking including over-the-counter medications and supplements.

How It's Diagnosed

Cough History

Your doctor will ask you questions about your cough and lifestyle:

  • When did your cough start?
  • Does your cough bring up mucus?
  • If there is mucus, what's the consistency and color? Is there any blood?
  • What triggers your cough?
  • Have you been in close contact with people with any respiratory infections such as common cold, tuberculosis, pneumonia or whooping cough?
  • What medical illnesses do you have?
  • Do you have any allergies?
  • What do you do for a living? What's your workplace like?
  • What do you do in your time off? Have you recently travelled?
  • Do you smoke cigarettes or marijuana? Do you use recreational drugs?

Physical Exam

At the doctor's office, they will take your vital signs including your temperature. They may check your oxygen levels by attaching a small painless clip to your finger. Your doctor will look at the back of your throat and ears when necessary. They will listen to your lungs and heart with a stethoscope and may also look at your legs and skin.


Your doctor may decide to order additional tests, which could include:

  • Chest X-ray: quick and easy chest picture.
  • Blood sample: to see if your body is fighting an infection.
  • CT scan of the chest: a better quality picture of the chest.
  • Throat swab: usually done with a long cotton swab.
  • Phlegm sample: collected after a deep cough
  • Spirometry: you will be asked to breathe out hard and fast into a small plastic device to measure how well you breathe out air.
  • Methacholine challenge test: a standard asthma breathing test often used to assess for cough variant asthma.

How It's Treated

The treatment of your cough depends on its cause. For example, over-the-counter medication can help decrease symptoms of an upper respiratory infection such as the common cold, while more serious conditions such as COPD or asthma exacerbations usually require inhalers and other treatment. Learn more about common causes of cough.

Living with Cough »

    This content was developed in partnership with the CHEST Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the American College of Chest Physicians.

    Reviewed and approved by the American Lung Association Scientific and Medical Editorial Review Panel. Last reviewed July 13, 2016.

    Page Last Updated: March 13, 2018

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