When it's cold and flu season, it might feel like you can't escape from people coughing around you. Coughs from colds and flu are caused by bacterial or viral infections and generally clear up on their own in a few days or weeks. Some coughs, though, may be symptoms of more serious problems.
But a cough alone is not a serious medical emergency. While most patients with coughs who visit the emergency department are diagnosed with acute upper respiratory infections, coughs that are raspy or sound a bit like a barking seal could be indicative of croup, and patients with shortness of breath and wheezing in addition to a cough may be having an asthma attack. Whooping cough, an illness with severe coughing is a high-contagious condition that requires medical attention. Coughs that are accompanied by blood or bloody, frothy or thick mucus are not normal and could be signs of a medical emergency, such as pulmonary edema or lung cancer. Furthermore, coughs with severe chest pain could be a symptom of a pulmonary embolism, tuberculosis or congestive heart failure.