A cough can be a mild inconvenience or a severe symptom that is a warning sign of serious disease. In the most scientific of definitions, coughing is actually a reflex. It occurs when your body needs to force air and secretions out of the lungs.
Of course, the way a cough is viewed medically will vary widely, depending on the severity of the cough, its duration and the type of secretions it produces. For a mildly scratchy throat that produces a cough, you may not need to do anything. If the cough won’t go away or is producing colored mucus or even blood, then it is much more serious.
What to Look for in a Cough
When a cough is serious, you can usually tell that something needs to be done. For example, a cough that produces clear, pale or yellow mucus may be a sign of a cold or the flu. If the colors you see are more tan or green, then it could be chronic bronchitis or pneumonia, which warrants a trip to the doctor’s office. And a cough that is pink, frothy or bloody requires emergency medical care; it could be a sign of severe lung problems, such as pulmonary edema.
If a cough is accompanied by shortness of breath or wheezing, it might be a sign of an asthma attack. Use rescue medication or seek emergency care if medication isn't available.
Other problems that can be related to coughing include croup in children, tuberculosis, congestive heart failure and lung cancer. As always, a good rule of thumb is to consult with a health care provider whenever a cough becomes more severe, produces alarming symptoms or doesn’t go away in a reasonable amount of time. It should be noted that smoking is also directly tied to coughing and many of the diseases that come along with coughing. If you’re a smoker, the best advice when it comes to coughing is to quit.
SOURCES: American Academy of Pediatrics; American Academy of Family Physicians