How to talk about cough with your doctor

Let’s talk about cough. You have probably experienced a cough at some point in your life. Coughing is your body’s natural defense to ensure that your throat and airway remain clear of any obstructions or irritating substances. However, with all the different characteristics, types, and causes of cough, explaining all your symptoms to your doctor can be a daunting task. Your doctor will likely ask pointed questions to arrive at the correct diagnosis, but here are some ways you can better describe your cough to your physician.

What Causes a Cough?

A lot of substances and conditions can cause you to cough. For example, an acute cough lasting less than three weeks can be caused by environmental irritants (smoke, dust), allergens (pollen, mold), colds, pneumonia, asthma, and pulmonary embolism. In contrast, a cough that extends beyond three weeks may have, as its cause, smoking, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), heart disease, and lung cancer. 

Some causes of cough may not be alarming, while others can alert you to the presence of a more serious underlying condition. If you already suspect a reason for your cough, it would definitely be worth sharing with your doctor.

How Can I talk About My cough?

How would you go about describing your cough? With the many ways to talk about a cough, here are some ways you can accurately describe your symptoms to your physician:

  • Character
    • Is my cough productive (produces mucus) or non-productive (dry)?
  • Intensity
    • Does it affect my daily activities, work, and sleep?
  • Timing
    • Is it worse when I wake up or go to sleep? Does it happen after meals?
  • Aggravating factors
    • What seems to worsen the cough? Lying down? Exercise? Particular food, medications, places, or temperatures/seasons?
  • Alleviating factors
    • What improves my condition? What medications, supplements, or home remedies relieve the cough? 

The list above is by no means exhaustive, as your doctor can likely ask more questions. However, if you talk effectively about your cough by answering these basic questions will hopefully help in narrowing down the probable causes of the cough. The details you can provide will also enable your physician to provide care that is tailor-fit to you.

What Remedies Can I Do at Home?

Even if you talk to your doctor about cough, you can still do some home remedies to help.
Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

While nothing can replace medical care, these simple home remedies can initially help alleviate some of your discomfort at home.

  • Rest and drink plenty of fluids.
  • Take a steamy shower or use a humidifier.
  • Drink warm liquids like soup or tea; this will help unclog your nose and loosen phlegm.
  • Eat healthy and nutritious food, as well as take the necessary multivitamins.
  • Dairy products can thicken phlegm, so you should avoid these.
  • Avoid drinking alcohol as it impairs your immune system.

These simple remedies will hopefully help you combat the most benign causes of cough. However, if your symptoms persist or seem to worsen, it might be time to consult your doctor.

When Should I See and Talk to My Doctor About Cough?

While no one would want things to reach this point, recognizing the warning signs that may warrant a call to your doctor is fundamental. Here are some of the signs and symptoms to watch out for:

  • Phlegm that is thick and green
  • Wheezing
  • Fever accompanying your cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fainting
  • Ankle swelling
  • Weight loss
  • Choking or vomiting
  • Coughing up bloody or pinkish phlegm
  • Chest pain

Recognizing these signs as early as they happen may mean the difference between a condition that you can manage with medications at home or hospitalization. So be vigilant and be aware of your (or your child’s) limitations in terms of treatment at home. 

Photo by from Pexels

Could This be COVID-19?

Cough is a common symptom of COVID-19. The majority of people usually have mild to moderate symptoms and recover at home. However, some people can develop a severe disease that peaks around 5-8 days after symptoms begin. Worrying symptoms include difficulty breathing, persistent pain or pressure in your chest, blue lips or face, and trouble staying awake. So, if you notice any of these red flags, consult your doctor immediately.


During this pandemic, it may take some time before we can easily brush off a cough. While it may be challenging to discuss cough symptoms because of the possibility of COVID-19, you will ultimately be doing yourself and others a huge favor in the long run. Being open and detailed in describing your symptoms can help your doctor come to the correct conclusions. This information you provide will also aid your doctor in providing you with the appropriate treatment. Some conversations, like your cough symptoms, may be difficult but ultimately necessary.

Click here if you want to learn more about cough, warning signs, and self-care measures.

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