18 May 2019

When is your cough a symptom of something serious?

A nagging cough can keep you awake at night. But what if it’s indicative of a more serious underlying medical condition? Here’s what a cough could signify.

Coughing is a normal response by the body to get rid of irritants in the airways. There are many things that may cause a cough – from colds and flu, to allergies and other more serious respiratory conditions. A cough can last from days to months.

But what if your cough is combined with other unpleasant symptoms and just won’t go away? It could be related to a more serious condition that needs medical attention. Here are some instances where you need to see a doctor as soon as possible:

1. Coughing up blood

Coughing up blood (hemoptysis) is a sign that something serious is going on. It can signal anything from infections, cancers to a problem in the blood vessels of the lungs.

Conditions like lung cancer, tuberculosis, congestive heart failure, internal injury to the lungs or a pulmonary embolism (a blood clot in your lungs) can all cause hemoptysis. While these causes are less common in a chronic cough, you should always seek medical attention when coughing up blood.

2. Night sweats

When you experience excessive sweating at night, along with your cough, it could signal pulmonary tuberculosis (TB). TB is an airborne disease that can spread when carriers cough and others breathe in the airborne bacteria. You may also experience unexplained weight loss and constant fatigue.

3. Thick mucus or sputum

When you cough up pink, frothy sputum with bubbles, it could signal excess fluid in your lungs (pulmonary oedema), which requires urgent medical attention. When you cough up extremely thick mucus or phlegm, it can either be a sign of bronchitis, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Green or yellow mucus can be a symptom of an infection like sinusitis or pneumonia.

4. Wheezing and struggling to breathe

If you constantly experience shortness of breath when you cough, you could be suffering from asthma. You will also produce a wheezing sound. Bronchitis causes swelling, inflammation and irritation of airways in the lungs, making breathing very difficult.

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.

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