Causes of coughing

Not all people who cough need to see a GP, yet it is the most common reason for visiting a GP. Most cough complaints go away on their own within one to three weeks, without the need for anything to be done. Some people who cough need to be examined by a GP, usually there are other additional complaints, or that person is already familiar with a certain disease.

What is coughing?

By coughing, the body itself can remove mucus and other foreign material that does not belong in the lungs or airways. Sometimes a bacterial infection is the cause of the cough, but most often it is a viral infection. An infection can cause the lungs or airways to form mucus or fluid. This does not belong there, so a coughing stimulus is generated. It used to be thought that the color of the coughed-up mucus proved whether it was a bacteria or a virus. This is all outdated and it doesn’t matter what color mucus is coughed up on it. People can also cough without an infection or virus present. This often concerns smokers, frequent clearing of the throat, air conditioning, sudden climate changes and sometimes a tickly cough is caused by the use of certain medications.

Which people should be seen by a GP

  • Babies under three months
  • Children older than three months who also have a fever, appear ill, are drowsy, cry, have rapid breathing or are short of breath
  • children who have previously had pneumonia or have a congenital abnormality of the heart, kidneys or neurological abnormalities or diabetes
  • adults who are seriously ill, have a fever, shortness of breath, pain when coughing or breathing, drowsiness or confusion
  • people with chronic conditions such as asthma or COPD, heart patients or diabetes patients.
  • people with reduced resistance due to malignant diseases.


Specific causes of the cough

Whooping cough

This is an infectious disease caused by a bacterium and causes inflammation of the respiratory organs, resulting in coughing fits. This disease mainly occurs in children. During such a coughing fit there is often wheezing breathing. Due to the amount of coughing, they can also vomit and small hemorrhages may appear in the eyes. Infants who develop this disease may experience a long pause in breathing after a coughing fit or turn completely blue in the face. Almost all children in the Netherlands have been vaccinated against this disease. They can still get this disease, but it will be less serious than in children who have not been vaccinated.


This is an inflammation of the smallest branches of the respiratory tract and is caused by the RS virus and mainly occurs in babies. They often have a cold, fever and shortness of breath. If the complaints are not that bad, the child usually recovers on its own between three and seven days. In case of severe shortness of breath or persistently long pauses in breathing, the child should be examined by a GP. The same applies if the child drinks less than half the normal amount due to the complaints.

Pseudo croup or false croup

Here the airways become narrowed due to inflammation of the vocal cords. It mainly occurs in the evenings. Children wake up with a barking cough, hoarseness and wheezing. If the child is not very short of breath, the complaints will diminish within a few hours. Excitement and crying often make the complaints worse, so it is important to distract the child by, for example, reading a book.


Coughing usually goes away on its own within one to three weeks and usually does not need to be treated with medication. Try to cut down on smoking, and non-smokers should avoid passive smoking. Sometimes steaming can provide relief, but substances should not be added to the water, as these can actually trigger a cough. There are many cough remedies available at pharmacies and drugstores, but most remedies have no effect. Regularly drinking something warm, taking a spoonful of honey or sucking on a licorice drop can reduce coughing symptoms somewhat.

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