Updated 29 May 2020

So you're coughing, what next? It could be for a number of reasons

We cough for various reasons. But since coughing is one of the listed key symptoms of Covid-19, you might find yourself becoming paranoid at the slightest tickle. Here’s what your cough means.

Since the beginning of the novel coronavirus pandemic, a dry cough has remained one of the main symptoms listed on all the guidelines and symptom checkers, including those of the World Health Organization (WHO), the South African Government and the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD).

But coughing is common and can happen for many reasons, including seasonal allergies and irritation. The main purpose of a cough is to dispel foreign particles, irritants or mucus from the airways. A cough itself is never an illness, but rather a symptom of an illness – usual allergies, asthma, a viral infection such as influenza, or a common cold.

Coughing and Covid-19

While symptoms in Covid-19 patients differ from person to person, the most common symptoms are described as fever, flu-like fatigue, trouble breathing and a dry, persistent, unpleasant cough.

As the illness progresses, your lungs may fill with more fluid and you may feel shortness of breath and discomfort as you cough. This cough usually doesn’t produce any phlegm at first, but if Covid-19 progresses to pneumonia, your lungs may fill up with secretions, which can make your sputum frothy.

Why else am I coughing?

If you are battling a cough, you may be worrying that you have been infected with the coronavirus, but, as mentioned above, a cough may occur for many reasons, such as:

  • Seasonal allergies, where the airways are irritated by pollen and dust
  • Household irritants such as dust, mould, pet dander or chemicals
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Certain chronic medications such as ACE inhibitors
  • Post-nasal drip, where mucus drips back into the airways, causing irritation
  • Chronic lung diseases such as asthma or COPD
  • Common cold or seasonal influenza

How do I diagnose my cough?

Coughs can be classified according to their duration:

  • Acute cough, usually because of influenza or a cold, lasting for less than three weeks
  • Sub-acute cough, usually because of a secondary infection such as bronchitis, lasting between three and eight weeks
  • Chronic cough, when a cough persists for more than eight weeks

When trying to determine the cause of your cough, ask yourself the following:

  • When did you start coughing?
  • When does it occur (at night, early morning)?
  • Is it exacerbated by certain foods, smoke, standing up or lying down?
  • Are there any other symptoms such as fever?

If you are currently coughing, remember to practice good coughing hygiene – cover your mouth with the crook of your elbow or a handkerchief, wear a mask when you are out in public for essential errands or work, and wash your hands frequently, especially before touching your face.

When should I head to the doctor with a cough?

You should consult your healthcare practitioner if your cough doesn’t clear up by itself within about a week.

You should also see your doctor immediately if your cough produces blood, causes pain or difficulty breathing. There are some cases where a doctor will refer you to a pulmonologist if any serious underlying conditions are suspected.

What if I suspect Covid-19?

If you are concerned about Covid-19 and suspect that you have been in contact with someone who might have been infected, live or work in a hotspot area, or you are presenting with symptoms, the NICD recommends that you contact your doctor immediately. They will refer you for a test.

According to the South African Department of Health, you can also call the NICD helpline (0800 029 999), where you will be advised on testing facilities on your area. You might have to be referred by a health professional.

Image credit: iStock


Ask the Expert

Cough Expert

Professor Keertan Dheda has received several prestigious awards including the 2014 Oppenheimer Award, and has published over 160 peer-reviewed papers and holds 3 patents related to new TB diagnostic or infection control technologies. He serves on the editorial board of the journals PLoS One, the International Journal of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease, American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Medicine, Lancet Respiratory Diseases and Nature Scientific Reports, amongst others. Read his full biography at the University of Cape Town Lung Institute.

Still have a question?

Get free advice from our panel of experts

The information provided does not constitute a diagnosis of your condition. You should consult a medical practitioner or other appropriate health care professional for a physical exmanication, diagnosis and formal advice. Health24 and the expert accept no responsibility or liability for any damage or personal harm you may suffer resulting from making use of this content.

* You must accept our condition

Forum Rules