Cough in adults

A cough is not usually serious and will generally go away within a few weeks. There are things you can do to make life easier while you’ve got a cough. It’s also good to know when you should seek medical advice.

This page is about cough in adults. Find out about cough in children.

Image credit: Canva

COVID-19 pandemic

A cough, with or without other respiratory symptoms such as fever or runny nose, could also be a COVID infection. Test for COVID-19 and stay home until well or sure this isn’t COVID.

How to look after yourself when you have a cough

In most cases, treatment for cough is not necessary. Mild, short-term coughs are likely to be due to a viral infection that will get better on its own within a few weeks. Antibiotics are only prescribed if your cough is caused by a bacterial infection.

You can care for yourself by:

  • resting
  • drinking plenty of fluids, including lemon and honey drinks
  • sleeping with your head propped up on pillows
  • avoiding smoke, and if you smoke quitting smoking
  • using cough medicine – it doesn’t cure a cough but may give you some relief from it (see below)
  • using your inhaler if you have asthma
  • taking antihistamines if you have hayfever.

There are a number of cough medicines available on the market. They may be sold in combination with other medicines in cold and cough products, or as cough mixtures or cough lozenges. There is little evidence to suggest that cough medicine is any more effective than simple home remedies, (eg, honey, saltwater gargles and warm drinks) and they're not suitable for everyone. If you're not sure, talk to your pharmacist. Examples of cough medicines include:

  • cough suppressants – used for dry coughs and may control the urge to cough such as dextromethorphan, pholcodine and codeine. 
  • expectorants – used for productive coughs. They loosen mucus making it easier to cough up.

There are many causes of cough, the most common being viral infections such as a cold or the flu. Other common causes include smoking, allergies (such as hay fever), asthma and bronchitis. Cough may also be a sign of gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD). In this video, Dr Shah, a GP, describes the common causes of cough and when you should see your doctor.

(NHS, UK, 2015)

When to get help

Contact a healthcare provider or call Healthline 0800 611 116 for advice:

  • If you a have a cough and you're short of breath.
  • If you cough up blood.
  • If you have unexplained problems like weight loss or a high temperature (fever).

What causes a cough?

The most common cause of a cough is a viral infection such as a cold or the flu. Other common causes include:

Rarely, a cough may be caused by:

How can I stop passing my cough on?

Remember to cover your cough and wear a mask when you are out of the home, or around others so you don’t spread your bugs. You can reduce your chances of getting a cough by following these winter tips for staying well.

Learn more

Cough Ministry of Health, NZ
Cough, colds and sore throats – manage symptoms without antibiotics Choosing Wisely, NZ
Cough Health Direct, Australia
Cough NHS Choices, UK


  1. Cough caused by a virus Patient Info, UK, 2016
  2. Cough Patient Info, UK, 2015
  3. Cough Ministry of Health, NZ, 2014
  4. Cold season – managing without antibiotics BPAC, NZ, 2018
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team.