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A cough may be acute; lasting less than three weeks, or chronic; when it may go on for more than eight weeks. Coughs can also be dry or productive of sputum (phlegm).
Most adults experience episodes of coughing between two and five times a year, and about one in five people suffer from coughs during the winter months. Although coughing often impairs people’s quality of life, it is rarely due to serious causes and usually gets better by itself.
An acute cough is most commonly caused by a viral upper respiratory tract infection (URTI) due to a cold.
A chronic cough is common in smokers and can sometimes suggest an underlying lung problem, but may also be caused by conditions outside the lung, such as heartburn (gastric reflux). Cough may also result from taking certain drugs (check the label), asthma, and environmental factors (dusty workplaces, for example).
Coughing is usually harmless and although coughs can be distressing (both for yourself and others living or working with you) and a nuisance because they often last for several weeks, acute coughs are almost always harmless and usually start to improve within three weeks.
There is no need for antibiotics as antibiotics do not work against viral infections, which cause most acute coughs. You may easily suffer a dry cough for 3 to 4 weeks after an infection has settled.
Seek medical advice immediately if you feel more unwell than you’d expect, if it starts after you’ve choked on something, or if you notice any of the warning symptoms below, which in rare cases can suggest a more serious underlying cause: