When a cough should be taken seriously


Coughing is a common symptom of respiratory infections like the cold, and is usually not serious. — Positive Parenting

It is early on a Monday morning and a mother is preparing supplies for her daughter’s day at school.

It is drizzling outside, making it cold and windy; the sky is still dark.

When the mother tries to wake her daughter to get ready for school, she notices that she feels hot and is difficult to rouse. Her daughter is also coughing.

Worried, she calls their family doctor.

He advises her to keep her daughter home for the day and bring her to the clinic when it opens.

When it is the mother and daughter’s turn to see the doctor in the clinic, the anxious mother quizzes the doctor on her daughter’s condition:

Mother: My daughter was fine yesterday, why did she suddenly develop a cough?

Doctor: A cough is an important reflex that helps clear out the body’s airways (the trachea and bronchi, which are the tubes that carry air within the lungs) and helps keep people breathing.

It is normal for people to cough once in a while. But sometimes, a cough is a symptom of an illness or medical condition.

Some coughs are called “dry” coughs because they don’t bring up mucus (phlegm).

Other coughs are called “wet” or “productive” coughs, because they do bring up mucus.

Some coughs are mild and do not cause serious problems.

Other coughs are severe and can cause the person to have difficult in breathing.

Mother: But why is my daughter coughing?

Doctor: There are many causes of cough.

The most common one is an infection of the airways or lungs (such as the common cold), which is most likely what your daughter is having.

Usually, patients with a cold or allergies will also experience a postnasal drip, which is when mucus from the nose drips down or flows along the back of the throat.

Mother: Can I do anything on my own to help get rid of my daughter’s cough?

Doctor: Yes, to help get rid of your daughter’s cough, you can put a humidifier in her bedroom (if her cough is caused by a cold).

You can also give her an over-the-counter cough medicine – but please follow the instructions given with the medicine – or let her suck on cough drops or hard candy.

If the cough is due to allergies, then you have to help your daughter avoid the things she is allergic to, for example, pollen, dust, animal fur, or mould.

Mother: How do I know if my daughter’s cough becomes serious?

Doctor: You should consult a doctor if your daughter has the following symptoms:



  • Trouble breathing or noisy breathing (wheezing)


  • Fever


  • Chest pain


  • Bloody, yellow or green mucus


  • Vomiting because she is coughing so hard


  • A worsening cough or one that lasts longer than 10 days


  • Unexpected and unplanned weight loss


Also, during this current Covid-19 pandemic, if your daughter has both a cough and fever, it is advisable to get medical attention straightaway to rule out Covid-19.

Do call your family doctor, like you did me, or the nearest clinic, and they will inform you if any precautions need to be taken when you and your daughter come to the clinic.

And do follow the standard operating procedures (SOPs) from the Health Ministry, like wearing a face mask, ensuring physical distancing between yourself and others, and keeping your hands clean and well-sanitised.

Dr Wana Hla Shwe is an associate professor of internal medicine at the Perdana University Graduate School of Medicine. This article is courtesy of Perdana University. For more information, email starhealth@thestar.com.my. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Information published in this article is not intended to replace, supplant or augment a consultation with a health professional regarding the reader’s own medical care. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.

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