As the winter months continue, many of us may be impacted by a seasonal cough, caused by colds or flu. Many older and vulnerable people are encouraged to take extra precautions to prevent disease prior to the winter season, such as the annual flu jabs.
In 2021, it was reported that a record number of over 65-year-olds had received a flu vaccine, around 81% of this age group1.
Although the average cough clears up in under 3 weeks2 it can be difficult to determine whether your cough is in fact, ‘just a cough’, or if there is a further, potentially serious cause that needs reviewing by a medical professional.
Dr Malathy Munisamy, one of MAC Clinical Research’s Physicians involved in respiratory research, has shared her advice on when to visit your GP when experiencing a cough.
Categories of Coughs
Dr Munisamy said: “If your cough lasts three weeks or more, you should book a visit to see your GP.
“Standard coughs, which are often ‘harmless’, settle on their own within a couple of weeks. A cough is simply the body’s natural response to any irritations within the airways.”
MAC’s doctor categorises coughs into three groups: acute, subacute, and chronic. Regular coughs typically fall under the acute category as they last under three weeks. Whereas when coughs last more than eight weeks, they are classed as chronic; this is typically when people are exposed to cigarette smoke or environmental irritants or are living with asthma or lung cancer.
Dr Munisamy said: “Any cough with associated worrying or severe symptoms such as coughing up blood, hoarseness of the voice, shortness of breath, fever, weight loss, trouble swallowing, or vomiting, should immediately be assessed by your doctor or GP.”
This type of cough appears in two main forms, as a post-nasal drip or as a cold/flu. Colds are caused by viruses spread through droplets in the air by people coughing, they typically cause a sore throat, and this specific cough usually produces yellow phlegm. It’s estimated that around one in five people will get a cough this winter3.
The cough typically produced by a post-nasal drip, however, is a dry or tickly one that brings up white mucus.
Although some chest infections can be serious, most of the time they are mild and can get better on their own. When experiencing a chest infection, many will notice a chesty cough which causes wheezing and shortness of breath.
COVID-19 also falls under this category. As of March 2023, around 1 in 40 people in England were still testing positive for coronavirus4. A cough typical of COVID-19 is characterised by a new continuous cough, meaning coughing a lot for more than an hour or having three or more coughing episodes in 24 hours.
One of the most common chronic coughs is a symptom of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) which impacts around 1.2 million people in the UK5. This progressive illness has no cure and is primarily caused by smoking. This cough is distinct, and persistent, and produces an increased amount of mucus which is usually brown in colour.
Another rarer but debilitating chronic cough is a symptom of Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF). Like COPD, there is no cure and ‘idiopathic’ means there is no known cause. This condition causes a persistent dry, hacking cough which brings up brown or red-tinged phlegm. It’s estimated that around 30,000 people in the UK live with IPF6.
Clinical Trials for Lung Conditions
MAC is looking for volunteers with moderate to severe COPD (aged 40-85) or IPF (aged 40+) to take part in their latest paid clinical research, investigating potential new treatment options for these conditions.
The clinical trials are running at several MAC clinics, primarily across the north of England. Eligible participants will receive reimbursement for their time and commitment to the trial, plus reasonable travel expenses will be paid, or transport provided, as well as a full medical check-up.
1 UK Health Security Agency – Seasonal influenza vaccine uptake in GP patients
2 NHS Inform – Cough
3 NHS (Bristol, North Somerset, and South Gloucestershire) – How to treat common winter illnesses
4 Office for National Statistics – Coronavirus (COVID-19) latest insights: Infections
6 British Thoracic Society – BTS ILD Registry Annual Report 2020: a summary of the UK IPF Registry for the general public