Winter months bring on a bevy of illnesses, and a cough is often a symptom. Sometimes, a cough may just be a minor seasonal annoyance, but when should a cough raise a concern?

It is important to note that a cough is only a symptom and not a disease, so determining additional symptoms is often the best way to form a treatment plan.

Typically, a cough is labeled as either productive or nonproductive. A productive cough produces phlegm or mucus, often from drainage from the throat or possibly from the lungs. Productive coughs can also be caused by viral illnesses, infections, chronic lung disease or smoking.

A nonproductive cough is described as dry or hacking. These coughs don’t produce mucus and can be caused by a variety of factors including viral illness, allergies, asthma and exposure to dust, fumes and chemicals in the work environment.

If you have a cough, evaluate additional symptoms to determine if they could be associated with a more serious ailment, as medical care may be necessary.

Influenza, commonly known as the flu, is often accompanied by a dry cough. The flu comes on quickly, usually with a high fever, aches and pains in joints and muscles, and general weakness throughout the body. A sore throat and nasal discharge may also appear. Most people who get the flu recover with over-the-counter remedies and without medical attention, but if you are very sick or worried about your illness, see a doctor immediately, as they can provide a prescription. Tamiflu is the only medication approved for the treatment of influenza and requires a prescription. Remember the old saying, “Mother a cold, but doctor a flu.”

Pneumonia, caused by an infection, is another concern that contains cough as a symptom. Symptoms of pneumonia initially resemble a cold and include sneezing, sore throat and cough, followed by a high fever and chills. If the infection moves to the air passages, a productive cough is usually a main symptom. People with pneumonia must be evaluated by a medical professional and antibiotics may be required. Many people who are affected with pneumonia can be treated at home with antibiotics, but hospitalization may be necessary.

Though a cough is usually thought to be a symptom of illness, coughing can be associated with severe complications such as pulmonary embolism and congestive heart failure.

Pulmonary embolism occurs when a major blood vessel in the lung is suddenly blocked, usually by a blood clot. Symptoms include a sudden shortness of breath, sharp chest pains that worsen during coughing or deep breathing, and a cough that results in pink, foamy mucus. If you have symptoms similar to these, see a doctor immediately.

Congestive heart failure (a weakened pumping ability in the heart) can be marked by both a productive cough and a nonproductive cough. Coughing can produce a wet, frothy sputum — possibly tinted pink with blood — or, may result in a dry, hacking cough with no mucus. Fatigue, shortness of breath and increased urination are also signs of congestive heart failure. If these symptoms are present, contact your care provider.

Though children afflicted with the flu or pneumonia are susceptible to coughing, a cough can mean different things for children. Croup, Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) infection and asthma are all common ailments affecting young children that are frequently accompanied by a cough.

A major symptom of croup in children is a “barking” cough, due to the swelling around vocal cords. Labored breathing and a worsening cough at night are also indicators of croup. In most cases, croup can be managed at home, but often, steroids are used by physicians to quicken recovery and relieve symptoms. 

Though it can affect people of any age, RSV is often seen in young children. In fact, most infants have had RSV by the age of 2. Symptoms include a cough, wheezing, labored breathing and fever. Mild RSV infections should go away without treatment, but severe infections may require hospitalization.

Asthma, a disorder caused by inflammation of the airways, can appear with a cough either with or without sputum, wheezing and shortness of breath. Emergency asthma symptoms are noted as a bluish color to lips and face, severe drowsiness or confusion and a rapid pulse. Asthma varies by case, so contact your physician to determine the best treatment plan.

Remember, a cough alone should not be the basis for diagnosis, but precaution should be taken when additional symptoms are present. Monitor all symptoms and abnormalities and keep a record to provide doctors if treatment is necessary.

If you see or experience emergency symptoms, head to Highland Park Emergency Center at 5150 Lemmon Ave. Suite 108, a free-standing emergency room right in your neighborhood that is open 24-hours a day — the only no-wait emergency room around.  An emergency room physician can see you quickly, evaluate your condition, and take steps to alleviate your symptoms immediately. If appropriate, they will admit you to the hospital if needed. 

Highland Park Emergency Center

5150 Lemmon Ave. Suite 108
Dallas, Texas 75209

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