All of us have had a cough at one time or another. When is a cough something to worry about?

Colds can cause irritation of the throat and airways, which results in a cough. Whether the sputum is clear, green or yellow really speaks nothing about the cause. Almost always this is a viral illness. What helps here might include tea with honey, salt water gargle, and a vaporizer. If the cough is particularly nasty and or is associated with wheezing consider using a prescribed inhaler such as Albuterol.

If you have asthma and develop a cough with wheezing, try using that prescribed inhaler (which should be a rescue inhaler such as Albuterol and not an inhaler taken on a regular basis such as a steroid or long acting Albuterol preparation). If, after 3 or so puffs there is no relief, or you still feel that chest tightness and shortness of breath, then you should go to the emergency room.

If the cough is associated with significant weakness, shortness of breath, dizziness, rapid heart rate, chest pain, consider going to the emergency room. Your cough could represent pneumonia or some other more serious condition and therefore would need  timely evaluation.

Patients who are on chemotherapy, have preexisting conditions such as cancer, advanced heart disease, inflammatory conditions requiring steroid use or are older should be seen at the first sign of a cough. These folks are at high risk of having a more serious cause of the cough.

If your child chokes on something and for the next few days or weeks continues to cough, he or she should be seen. The cough could represent a lung aspiration and therefore would need further testing.

If you have a cough associated with night sweats, weight loss, increased weakness and or have had tuberculosis in the past, you should see your doctor. Many diseases can cause these symptoms including cancer, heart failure, chronic pneumonias and tuberculosis.

Most coughs are pretty benign and the danger lies more in the treatment than in the cause. Stay away from all over the counter cough syrups and tablets. Not only are these ineffective they can cause some bad side effects including elevation of the blood pressure, drowsiness and confusion.

And of course always remember to cough into your arm, away from others rather than into your hands. I am quite sure that your friends, family and bystanders will appreciate this.