When Should I Go to the Doctor for a Cough?

Talor Bianchini
Talor Bianchini21 Dec 2022

A cough could mean many different things for your health. It may be challenging to decide if your cough is worth going to the doctor. You should consider the severity of your symptoms and how long they have lasted before deciding whether to see a medical professional. 

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When To Go To The Doctor For a Cough

A cough is a common symptom for various medical conditions, including the flu, the common cold, and even COVID-19. Sometimes, an occasional cough may be completely harmless and not indicative of a serious medical condition. However, if you are experiencing a persistent cough, you may be considering a visit to the doctor. 

There are several different places you may be treated for a cough and related symptoms, including your primary care physician’s office, an urgent care center, or the emergency room. The location of your visit will depend on any accompanying symptoms and other factors. There are no set rules for when you should visit the doctor, but there are some things you can look out for. 

Primary Care Physician

One of the first places you may consider getting your cough looked at is your primary care physician (PCP). PCPs are an excellent option since they understand your medical history and have treated you for illnesses in the past. If you have preexisting conditions, like a respiratory illness, you may consider seeing your PCP for treatment if your cough is concerning. 

If you don’t have any medical conditions, you may be unsure when to give your doctor a call. Below are some concerning cough side effects that would warrant a visit to your PCP:

  • Wheezing
  • Coughing up phlegm
  • Fever
  • Shortness of breath
  • Ankle swelling
  • Weight loss
  • Fainting
  • It continues for hours without stopping
  • Night sweats or fevers
  • The cough doesn’t go away for three weeks

When visiting the doctor for your cough, you should be prepared to provide information about your symptoms and what you have been experiencing. For example, the doctor may ask you questions such as:

  • How long have you had your cough?
  • Are you taking any medications or using any home remedies?
  • Are you experiencing other symptoms?
  • Do you have any pre-existing medical issues, such as seasonal allergies?
  • Does your cough get worse at night or when you are active?
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Virtual Care

Another option for treating your cough is visiting a PCP online. Virtual primary care doctors are equipped with treating the same conditions as in-person doctors and can assess many symptoms you are experiencing. They are even able to prescribe medications or refer you for in-person treatment. Virtual PCP’s are typically less expensive than visiting a doctor in person as well. A great way to save on virtual visits is through a Mira membership. For an average of $45 a month, members at Mira get access to low-cost virtual care, which can be used for primary and urgent care, behavioral health counseling, and psychiatric visits. 

Urgent Care

At times, an urgent care center may be a better option for treatment. Healthcare professionals at urgent care centers can provide the same level of care as your PCP. Urgent care may be an ideal place to visit if your symptoms come on suddenly and you need care right away. Doctors’ offices can be challenging to get appointments at, and your treatment may be delayed as a result. Other instances where urgent care may be a great option are if you need care after regular office hours or on the weekend, which is typically when most doctors’ offices are closed. 

If you have other symptoms accompanying your cough, such as a fever, sore throat, or runny/stuffy nose, urgent care centers are equipped to provide fast and efficient testing for both COVID-19 and the flu. Your regular PCP may not offer these services at their office and sometimes will refer you to an urgent care center instead. Most locations have rapid testing, providing you with results in under an hour. 

If the doctor treating you believes your cough has led to serious side effects or an emergency, they may refer you to the hospital or emergency room. 

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Emergency Room

Visiting the ER can be quite expensive, so if your cough is not severe, you should try to go to a PCP or urgent care first. A cough will often not warrant a visit to the emergency room. However, there are certain situations when an ER will be your best option. 

If you have any of the following side effects with your cough, you should seek emergency care:

  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing or swallowing
  • Choking
  • Coughing up blood or pinkish phlegm (even if it's a few drops)
  • Vomiting

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned above or believe you are in a life-threatening situation, you should always call 9-1-1 or go to your closest emergency room. 

Treating Your Cough

Before giving the doctor a call, you may want to try some over-the-counter and at-home remedy options for treating your cough and other symptoms. 

  • Cough medicine: Cough medicine should be used if you are not experiencing any of the above concerning symptoms. It is helpful for acute conditions and coughs that are interfering with sleep and causing a lot of discomfort. It's essential to follow the dosage instructions, as it can be very harmful to use more than indicated. They should not be used to treat coughs in children under the age of 6.
  • Pain relievers: If your cough is causing you to have a sore throat or other pain, you may consider using an over-the-counter pain reliever, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen. Pain relievers are a better option for children under the age of 6 and are generally safe for them to take. They can be used in conjunction with other remedies as well.
  • Moisturizing the air: Putting moisture into the air helps moisturize your airways, calm your airways, and relieve discomfort or irritation. You can do this by using a cool-mist humidifier or taking a hot shower. Essential oils may be added to the water to provide additional relief.
  • Drinking lots of fluids: When you have a cough, it's essential to drink plenty of liquids to help soothe your throat. If you are coughing up mucus, it will also help thin it out. Make sure to drink lots of water to hydrate yourself. Hot liquids, such as tea, lemon juice, or broth may also bring you comfort and help with your cough.
  • Cough drops: Sucking on cough drops or other hard candies helps to wet your throat and can help reduce coughing. Many cough drops are also coated with airway-opening menthol, which is soothing. These should not be given to children under the age of 6, as they are a choking hazard. However, many pharmacies carry cough-relieving lollipops, which are similar to cough drops and much safer for children. 
  • Honey: Honey can also help provide cough relief. You can try eating a teaspoon of honey or adding it to a hot beverage. It should not be given to children under the age of 1 since some honey may contain harmful bacteria.

If none of these at-home remedies help, your doctor may have other suggestions for clearing up your cough. Some other potential treatments for cough may include:

Bottom Line

A cough is a common symptom for many illnesses but sometimes does not indicate any serious medical condition. If you have a persistent cough, you may consider visiting a doctor for treatment, especially if accompanied by other symptoms such as a fever, shortness of breath, or wheezing. Depending on the severity of your symptoms, you may need to visit an urgent care center or emergency room instead. Make sure to monitor your condition closely and see a healthcare provider as soon as needed. 

After visiting your doctor, you may be prescribed medication to treat your cough, which can get expensive without insurance. Luckily, you can get up to 80 percent off over 1000 different prescription medications for as low as $25 on average per month with a Mira membership. In addition, you’ll receive access to low-cost primary and urgent care, as well as same-day lab testing. Save money, cough less - sign up for Mira today. 

Talor Bianchini

Talor graduated from Penn State University with a B.S. in Biobehavioral Health, and minors in Spanish and Diversity & Inclusion in May of 2022. She has a passion for health equity and diversity in health. In the future, Talor hopes to work in public health policy reform to help eliminate health disparities. She enjoys reading, cooking, and listening to podcasts in her free time.