Updated 06 July 2018

Diagnosing a cough

Your doctor will identify the type of cough you have, as well as other related symptoms you may be suffering from.


Most acute/short-terms coughs will go away on their own, and many people don’t even go and see a doctor. 

“Cough remedies” such as cough mixtures and lozenges don’t speed up the healing process, but may reduce the cough intensity to some degree. Thus, the cause of the cough is often never really evaluated as most of us self-medicate our coughs and colds.

If, however, the simple cough doesn’t go away, or if it’s accompanied by more than just a runny nose, a doctor is often consulted.

The starting point in diagnosing the cause of the cough, and thus appropriate treatment, is taking a detailed history: 

When did the cough start? 
When does it occur (e.g. day/night, after food, when lying/standing)?  
Does anything come up when you cough (in other words, is it a “productive” cough)? 
What does the phlegm or mucus look like, and how much comes up? 
Is anything else associated with the cough (e.g. fever, weight loss, night sweats)? 

These are the most important questions your doctor will ask you. 

It’s often more important and helpful to get the whole picture of the cough with a consultation than doing any special investigations. These investigations are usually only used just to confirm the cause – for example, a foreign body seen on a chest X-ray after the cough began when a Lego piece disappeared down a child’s throat!

Acute cough

Chronic cough
A clinical examination usually gives a healthcare practitioner a very clear indication of the cause of the cough. Special investigations will be considered by your doctor if the cause of the cough remains unclear, or to support a diagnosis.

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.


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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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