Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2004;69(10):2441

When should I call my doctor about a cough?

If you have had a cough for more than three weeks, it may be a chronic cough. When something is called “chronic,” that means that it lasts for a long time. Here are some questions to help you decide if you should call your doctor:

  • Are you coughing up thick yellow or green mucus?

  • Are you making a whistling sound when you breathe?

  • Do you have a temperature higher than 101°F?

  • Are you losing weight even though you aren’t trying to?

  • Are you having drenching sweats while you sleep (the sheets and your pajamas get soaking wet)?

  • Are you coughing up blood?

If you answered “yes” to even one of these questions, call your doctor. He or she will want to find out if you have an illness that is causing the cough. If you answered “no” to all of these questions, one of the conditions listed below may be causing your cough.


Smoking can cause a cough that does not go away. Smoking also causes lung cancer. If you smoke, you should stop. Talk to your doctor about how to stop smoking.


Allergies can cause postnasal drip, which is mucus that runs down your throat from the back of your nose. This can cause a cough. You can buy medicine at the drugstore that may help stop your cough. Ask your doctor or pharmacist to help you choose one. Sometimes your doctor will prescribe a nasal spray to help stop your postnasal drip.


Ask your doctor if any of the medicines you use could make you cough. If you are taking a medicine that is making you cough, your doctor might be able to prescribe a different medicine for you. Do not stop taking that medicine unless your doctor tells you to.


Coughing can be a sign of asthma. In some people with asthma, a cough is their only symptom. Your doctor may want you to use asthma medicine to see if your cough goes away.


Acid from your stomach may back up into your throat. This is called acid reflux. It can cause heartburn or cough. Acid reflux happens more often when you are lying down. If you have acid reflux, try raising the head of your bed about four inches with blocks. It also might help to avoid eating or drinking for two hours before you lie down. To help control your stomach acid, you should not drink alcohol or drinks with caffeine in them, or eat chocolate or spicy or greasy foods. An antacid or an acid-blocking medicine also may be helpful. Talk to your doctor.

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