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When Your Cough Is Serious

Coughing is a symptom common to many conditions. Most respiratory illnesses cause coughing, from colds and pneumonia to chronic diseases such as pulmonary fibrosis. When is a cough harmless, and when should you see a doctor?

At Houston Medical ER in Houston and Spring, Texas, our skilled providers offer rapid care with short wait times for patients of all ages. We provide medical evaluations and treatments to help you recover from an illness as quickly as possible. 

You can rely on our top-quality care for fast and compassionate help if you or your child has a troublesome cough. 

When is coughing an emergency?

Coughing up blood is an emergency, as is vomiting blood. Seek medical attention immediately if you experience a severe cough or dry cough with shortness of breath while resting or exerting yourself; rapid, shallow breathing; acute chest pain; or blue lips or skin.

See a medical professional if you or a loved one has had a cough for longer than a few weeks. You should seek urgent care if you’re experiencing a cough with the following:

  • Fever
  • Wheezing
  • Fainting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Ankle swelling
  • Weight loss
  • Coughing up thick, greenish-yellow phlegm

If you’re pregnant and have a cough, visit us at Houston Medical ER. We don’t require appointments, so you can see a specialist 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

What’s causing my cough?

An acute cough is usually the result of a mild illness and goes away within a few weeks, while a chronic cough may indicate a more serious condition. We classify this symptom based on the length of time you’ve had the cough.

Acute cough

An acute cough occurs suddenly and lasts for 2-3 weeks. You most often get acute coughs with a cold, flu, or acute bronchitis.

Acute coughs are also caused by:

  • Allergens (pet dander, pollen, or mold)
  • Environmental irritants (smoke, dust, or fumes)
  • Lower respiratory infections like pneumonia
  • Upper respiratory tract infections 
  • Chronic conditions like asthma
  • Serious conditions like pulmonary embolism or heart attack

Foreign bodies in the airway can also cause an acute cough. Depending on the location and type of foreign body, you might experience wheezing, coughing up blood, gagging, or a bulging abdomen when trying to breathe.

Chronic cough

A chronic cough lasts longer than eight weeks in adults and more than four weeks in children. Chronic coughs can be caused by:

  • Smoking
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Chronic respiratory conditions 
  • Pulmonary disease
  • Lung cancer 
  • Environmental triggers
  • Certain medications

Coughing in the morning is consistent with a smoker's cough, and repeated coughing at night or during exercise is consistent with asthma or a heart problem

Coughing in children

A child’s cough can sound terrible and may need medical attention, but most of the time, coughing isn’t dangerous. A cough is typically just your child’s body processing an illness. But sometimes you should seek medical care.

Whooping cough (pertussis)

Whooping cough is a disease caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis that can last for several weeks if left untreated. The infection can be life-threatening for infants and lead to serious health problems in adults. 

It causes coughing fits and spasms that lead to wheezing and often vomiting.


Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) causes mild, cold-like symptoms. It’s a common virus that can become serious in infants and older adults. RSV causes coughing by inflaming or infecting small airways in the lungs.

When your cough is serious

We’re here for you. A cough can be acute or chronic. COVID-19 also causes a cough. If you or your child has a cough, call our Houston Medical ER experts or walk in anytime.

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