Coughs are one of the most common symptoms of illness.  And while most coughs are little more than a noisy annoyance, some can indicate a serious health problem.  Here are some characteristics to help decipher if your cough is trying to communicate a need to get help immediately at a walk in clinic.


Perhaps the most fundamental consideration when it comes to coughs is that of duration--how long has the cough lasted?  Coughs can be frustratingly persistent, stubbornly holding on even after other symptoms begin to fade.

In general, however, coughs associated with infection tend to last a shorter period of time than those due to other conditions, such as environmental irritation, asthma, emphysema, or even reflux.   Any new cough that lasts longer than three weeks, even if no other symptoms are present, should be checked by a physician.

Wet or Dry?

The next important consideration is whether the cough is wet (producing phlegm or sputum) or dry.  Most often, dry coughs are related to viral infections of the nose and throat, while a wet cough may indicate a problem in the lungs such as pneumonia, bronchitis, asthma, or even cancer.

Because several of these conditions can be life-threatening, if a wet cough is accompanied by severe symptoms (difficulty breathing, bluish lips, sharp chest pain, blood in the sputum, etc.) it is important to seek medical help immediately. 

Length of Individual Coughing Spells?

Although most dry coughs don't represent a serious infection, dry coughs that come in prolonged spells could be a sign of whooping cough.  In fact, coughing fits associated with whooping cough may be intense enough to leave a person gasping for breath, cause the face to change red or blue, or even lead to vomiting.

Vaccination can help prevent whooping cough (also known as pertussis) but outbreaks remain relatively common.  In fact, in 2013 the Center for Disease Control reported 28,639 cases of whooping cough, with the majority of related deaths occurring in infants, making the identification of lengthy coughing spells especially important for parents of small children.

Other Sounds?

Finally, listening for unusual sounding coughs can be helpful in determining if a cough requires special attention.  The lengthy coughing spells associated with whooping cough often end with the characteristic high-pitch "whoop" sound the condition is named for.

On the other hand, croup (an infection that causes inflammation and swelling in the throat just below the vocal cords is associated with a harsh, barking cough, often compared to that of a seal.  Because the airways of children under five are especially small, the sound is also especially pronounced (and the condition especially dangerous) in young children. 

Although most coughs will resolve on their own within a couple of weeks, some coughs represent serious conditions that require medical attention.  Identifying the unique characteristics of your cough will help in determining whether a visit to a doctor's clinic is necessary, and, once there, assist your physician in deciding an appropriate response to the cough.