Here's When You Should Be Concerned About Your Cough

As the outdoor temperatures cool and the time of year known as "cold season" begins, the sound of people coughing becomes almost as common as Christmas music in stores. Occasional coughing is completely healthy and normal. It's a protective reflex that guards our airways and lungs against the nasty things that try to invade them — bacteria, viruses, airborne irritants of many kinds, and even the occasional insect that ends up on the wrong flight path (via American Lung Association). 

"Cough is the most common respiratory symptom for which patients seek medical attention," said Dr. Alan B. Goldsobel, chairman of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology's cough committee (via MedicineNet). But when does a cough become a cause for concern and warrant a visit to the doctor's office — especially now that we know coughing can also be a symptom of COVID-19?

Health experts have outlined 3 major signs to look for when trying to figure out whether that cough needs medical attention: how long it lasts, how severe it is, and whether it's accompanied by other significant symptoms (via eMedicineHealth).

See a doctor if the cough isn't going away

Acute coughs, meaning they last less than 3 weeks, normally accompany colds and other minor respiratory infections. They also often come with other symptoms, such as a sore throat and runny nose. These normally resolve fairly quickly with lots of fluids and some at-home TLC. If the cough is accompanied by more serious symptoms, like difficulty breathing, chest pain, coughing up blood or greenish phlegm, or fever, it's time to see a health professional.

When coughs linger for 8 weeks are more, they are considered chronic and can signal a more serious underlying problem. If a cough has been going on for many weeks and is just not going away, it's important to get it checked out. For children, the same conditions apply, but the time frame is shorter. "As a general rule, if your child has a cough that is getting progressively worse and/or lasting longer than five to seven days without improvement, it's a good idea to have them seen by a medical professional," Dr. Michael Lee, a pediatrician with Children's Health and associate professor at UT Southwestern, told the Children's Hospital Association. According to the Mayo Clinic, a cough in children is considered chronic after just 4 weeks.

If in doubt, err on the side of caution and pay your doctor a visit. They can help determine the cause of the cough, and they may not be surprised to see you.