Cough has an array of possible causes, ranging from a foreign body lodged in the airways to an infective cause and even lung cancer.
It’s important to distinguish the non-life-threatening cough, such as that caused by a common viral cold, from one caused by tuberculosis or lung cancer.
This isn’t always that easy in the first instance, but most “dangerous coughs” last longer than a few weeks (although both types might be equally severe in the acute stage).
Generally, coughs are divided into groups according to duration. This helps sort out the self-limiting from the chronic causes. But it’s important to recognise that every cough has to start at some point – even a cough caused by a cancer will, in the beginning, only have been there a short while.
- Acute cough: coughing for less than three weeks
- Sub-acute cough: cough lasting between three and eight weeks
- Chronic cough: coughing for more than eight weeks
Cough has numerous causes. It should be reviewed by a healthcare practitioner if it doesn’t clear up by itself within a couple of days, if the cough is productive of blood, or if it’s associated with severe chest pains, for example.
Reviewed by Professor Richard van Zyl-Smit, Head of the Lung Clinical Research Unit at the University of Cape Town. MBChB, MRCP(UK), Dip HIV(Man), MMED, FCP(SA), Cert Pulm(SA), PhD. February 2018.