A cough will usually clear up on its own within 3 to 4 weeks.
How you can treat a cough yourself
There's usually no need to see a GP if you have a cough.
- drink plenty of fluids
- try to stay at home and avoid contact with other people if you have a high temperature or you do not feel well enough to do your normal activities
You could also try:
- paracetamol or ibuprofen to treat any pain
- hot lemon and honey (not suitable for babies under 1 year old)
- a herbal medicine called pelargonium (suitable for people aged 12 or over)
But there's limited evidence to show these work. Hot lemon with honey has a similar effect to cough medicines.How to make a hot lemon and honey drink
- Squeeze half a lemon into a mug of boiled water.
- Add 1 to 2 teaspoons of honey.
- Drink while still warm (do not give hot drinks to small children).
Some medicines and herbal treatments are not safe for everyone (for example, if you're pregnant). Always check the leaflet or speak to a pharmacist before taking them.
A pharmacist can help if you have a cough
If you have a cough, you can ask a pharmacist about:
- cough syrup
- cough medicine (some cough medicines should not be given to children under 12 years old)
- cough sweets
These will not stop your cough, but may help you cough less.
Decongestants and cough medicines containing codeine will not stop your cough.
See a GP if:
- you've had a cough for more than 3 weeks (persistent cough)
- you're losing weight for no reason
- you have a weakened immune system – for example, because of chemotherapy or diabetes
Ask for an urgent GP appointment or get help from NHS 111 if:
- your cough is very bad or quickly gets worse – for example, you have a hacking cough or cannot stop coughing
- you feel very unwell
- you have chest pain
- the side of your neck feels swollen and painful (swollen glands)
- you find it hard to breathe
- you're coughing up blood
You can call 111 or get help from 111 online.
What happens at your appointment
To find out what's causing your cough, the GP might:
- listen to your chest with a stethoscope
- take a sample of any mucus you might be coughing up
- order an X-ray, allergy test, or a test to see how well your lungs work
- refer you to hospital to see a specialist, but this is rare
Antibiotics are not normally prescribed for coughs. A GP will only prescribe them if you need them – for example, if you have a bacterial infection or you're at risk of complications.
What causes coughs
Most coughs are caused by a cold or flu.
Other causes include:
- heartburn (acid reflux)
- allergies – for example, hay fever
- infections like bronchitis or COVID-19
- mucus dripping down the throat from the back of the nose
A cough is rarely a sign of something serious like lung cancer.