Our waiting room is a chorus of coughs thanks to the large number of upper respiratory tract viruses circulating through the community at present. Did you know that the average number of coughing illnesses for a school-aged child is three per year? It probably feels like a lot more than that at times!

Dry coughs are more annoying than sinister. They are mostly from mild irritation of the upper airways during an infection, and although it is an unpleasant symptom, it usually settles after 5-7 days without any intervention. Longer coughing may be due to post-infective airways sensitivity (common in children) or bronchitis, and lasts about 3 weeks – again resolving without any particular treatment.

There are some situations where a prompt visit to the GP is a good idea:

  • coughing infants (especially aged under 12 months)

  • severe coughing suggests whooping cough – you need to have this diagnosed and treated within the first week of symptoms to reduce the ‘100 days of cough’

  • high fever over 38 degrees, any vomiting

  • any suspicion of inhaled foreign body

  • prolonged cough more than 3-4 weeks, especially a moist sounding cough

  • any difficulties breathing – you may note this in young kids as shoulder hiking, or the abdominal skin being sucked under the ribs

  • coughs occurring with other medical conditions such as asthma or lung disease

Luckily there are a few ways to help prevent and manage coughs. Make sure you are up to date with your vaccinations – pertussis (whooping cough) vaccination is a very important routine vaccination for families, and consider the additional influenza vaccination, especially if you have other medical conditions such as asthma.

Stay away from smoke, drink plenty of fluids, suck lozenges, use some salt water drops for a blocked nose and simple analgesia for a sore throat. Don’t be tempted to use cough liquids or syrups – these can be very dangerous for children under the age of 12, and don’t have good evidence for use in adults either (but they do have a long list of adverse effects!).

Dr Cath Hester


These articles are not intended to replace a one-to-one relationship with a qualified health professional or as specific medical advice. They are intended as a sharing of knowledge and information from experience and research in the scientific literature. I encourage you to make your own health care decisions based upon a partnership with a qualified health care professional.