How to Diagnose Your Cough   

How to Diagnose Your Cough

Man coughing into his elbow.
Clinical Contributors to this story:
Alex Gusler, M.D.

All coughs are not created equal, according to Alex Gusler, M.D., family medicine specialist at Ocean University Medical Center. Many factors can cause a cough, and it can be difficult to distinguish among them.

Dr. Gusler breaks down some of the typical coughs people experience:

Cold and Flu

  • Duration: A cough associated with a cold or flu might linger for anywhere from a few days to a month.
  • Sounds like: For the flu, coughing tends to be dry, sometimes severe. For colds, coughing tends to sound like hacking.
  • Other symptoms: In addition to a cough, other symptoms include fever, sore throat, aches and chills, and stuffy nose.
  • Treatment options: Your doctor can perform rapid tests to distinguish among cold and flu coughs, then recommend treatment.


  • Duration: Some people with asthma can experience chronic cough. For others, a cough may be a sign that their condition is poorly controlled.
  • Sounds like: Asthma tends to produce a whistling or wheezing cough.
  • Other symptoms: Additional asthma symptoms include shortness of breath, chest tightness and wheezing.
  • Treatment options: Coughing can lead to further inflammation of airways and cause breathing problems. Dr. Gusler says that if using albuterol relieves the cough, the underlying problem may be inadequate treatment and it may be time to update the maintenance therapy. If the albuterol does not relieve the symptoms, the cough may have a different cause.


  • Duration: You’ll likely experience allergy symptoms, including coughing, almost immediately after you’re exposed to what you’re allergic to—and symptoms could last for hours after exposure.
  • Sounds like: Allergy coughs are usually dry.
  • Other symptoms: Additional allergy symptoms include itchy and watery eyes, a runny nose, sneezing and an itchy throat.
  • Treatment options: Relief can come from limiting exposure to allergens (keeping windows closed, showering after coming indoors from outdoors, using an air purifier). Over-the-counter oral antihistamines and nasal spray can help, and doctors may prescribe additional allergy medications or shots.

GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease)

  • Duration: Coughing caused by GERD tends to worsen at night and can last for several months.
  • Sounds like: Coughing as a result of GERD tends to be dry.
  • Other symptoms: Signs of GERD include a burning sensation in the chest after eating, trouble swallowing, upper abdominal or chest pain and regurgitation of food.
  • Treatment options: Dietary triggers for the condition can include spicy foods, citrus, alcohol, coffee, chocolate and acidic foods like tomatoes. Your doctor can diagnose this condition and work with you to create a treatment plan.


  • Duration: Mild RSV can last for a week or two, but severe RSV can last longer.
  • Sounds like: RSV tends to produce a wheezing, wet, forceful cough.
  • Other symptoms: RSV symptoms include a stuffy or runny nose, decreased appetite, sneezing, fever and difficulty breathing.
  • Treatment options: Treatment for mild RSV symptoms can include over-the-counter pain relievers, extra fluids, vaporizers, nasal drops and rest. Severe RSV can require oxygen support, antiviral medication and clearing out the lungs.


  • Duration: Croup usually clears up in a few days to a week.
  • Sounds like: Croup coughing often resembles a loud barking seal.
  • Other symptoms: Other symptoms can include fever, a hoarse voice and loud or difficult breathing.
  • Treatment options: At-home care can include over-the-counter pain relievers for fever and comforting your child. If your child’s condition does not improve, your doctor may consider a breathing treatment or steroid medication.

When to Call Your Doctor

For most coughs, Dr. Gusler recommends drinking water and clear liquids to keep the mucus thin, over-the-counter medications like Mucinex and Robitussin, or homeopathic treatments that can include a teaspoon of honey to loosen the cough.

If your cough persists for more than a week or is getting worse—especially if related symptoms include shortness of breath, chest pain or fever that does not respond to Tylenol—it’s time to call your doctor.

If you have serious underlying conditions like COPD or asthma, or are undergoing treatment for conditions like cancer, contact your doctor as soon as your symptoms become concerning or as you and your doctor have previously discussed.

Next Steps & Resources:

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.



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