Dr Ellie Cannon: That cough is not serious

Once again my surgery is full of people with coughs. It seems the wrong time of year doesn’t it? It’s not the weather that’s done it, it’s the Department of Health!

Just like last year, the Government has launched its three-week cough campaign with advertisements advising people with coughs to pop down to their GP if it’s lasted more than three weeks. Trouble is, the ads make no mention of age or other risk factors, so everyone has been scared into coming.

Now I’m all for awareness campaigns but I wish this one was better thought out. A cough is possibly the commonest of symptoms, but we don’t want healthy people terrified into coming to the doctor.

A cough is a sign of lung cancer in about two thirds of those who have the disease. The problem lies in the fact that coughing is also a symptom of a range of other conditions far more common than lung cancer such as viral coughs, chest infections and asthma.

A simple cough caused by a virus can last up to four weeks. If a cough has started after a cold or is associated with temperature and infection symptoms that is most likely what it is particularly in a young non-smoker. GP surgeries are full of healthy people with coughs who do not have lung cancer.

At this time of year, patients are often coughing with their allergies, especially as the pollen this year seems to be particularly virulent. A commonly used blood pressure tablet known as ACE inhibitors causes a cough as a side effect which can be persistent until the medication is stopped. We are currently seeing a resurgence in whooping cough which can cause adults to cough for up to three months. Coughing can also be caused by a post-nasal drip from sinuses or even from acid reflux from the stomach.

I don’t want to stop anyone with a cough going to the doctor but I do want to stop unnecessary anxiety. Of course if you are over 55, a smoker, or if you have difficulty breathing, wheeziness, or blood in your sputum you should see a doctor. You should also see your doctor if you are having night sweats, you are losing weight or you have travelled abroad recently. If you are otherwise healthy and have been coughing for a couple of weeks after a flu, perhaps it is reasonable to wait to see if the cough resolves itself.

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Last updated: 3:47pm, July 26 2013