I have a cough

In brief

In brief

  • Coughing is often nothing to worry about. It is usually caused by smoke, dust or a cold.
  • By coughing, your body cleans your windpipe (trachea), throat and lungs.
  • It usually clears up in 2 to 3 weeks.
  • A hot drink, a spoonful of honey or sucking  a sweet can help soothe your throat. 
  • Cough syrup and cough tablets do not help. 
  • Make sure you have clean air in your home.
  • Quit smoking if you smoke.
  • Have you been coughing for more than 3 weeks? Are you coughing up bloody mucus or phlegm? Are you wheezing or short of breath? Then see your GP.
  • Sometimes coughing can be caused by coronavirus. See coronavirus (in Dutch).
  • Dutch healthcare practices in general may differ from what you are used to in your home country. Learn more.


What is it?

What is coughing?

Coughing is the body's natural way of clearing the windpipe (trachea), throat and lungs.

The mucus (phlegm) you cough up also contains smoke particles and dust. When you cough, you remove this from your windpipe, throat and lungs.

Sometimes you cough without coughing up mucus. We call this a dry cough or a tickly cough.


What causes coughing?

Your throat, windpipe and lungs are lined with mucous membranes.

When the mucous membranes are irritated, they produce extra mucus. This makes you cough.

Various things can irritate the mucous membranes: 

If you cough a lot, you can get a dry throat. Having a dry throat can make you cough even more. 

Often no cause can be found for a dry cough.

Should I be worried?

Is coughing something to worry about?

Coughing now and then is normal.

Frequent coughing usually isn’t anything to worry about either, and almost always clears up on its own in 2 to 3 weeks.

You can swallow the mucus (phlegm) you cough up. It is simply digested and ends up in your poo (stool). So the mucus does not go back into the lungs.


What can I do to prevent coughing?

  • Make sure you have clean air in your home and at work. Avoid going into rooms with smoke or without much fresh air. 
  • If you smoke, quitting smoking (in Dutch) helps to cough less.  
  • Try to clear your throat as little as possible. Clearing your throat can irritate it. And this will make you cough again. This way you will keep coughing.
  • Thick mucus (phlegm) that you can’t cough up can make you feel uncomfortable.
    • Inhaling steam over a bowl of hot water can help loosen the mucus. Don’t add anything to the water. So no menthol or eucalyptus, for example. This can irritate the mucous membranes.
    • A hot drink can sometimes help loosen the mucus.
  • If you have a sore throat, a cold drink often helps.
  • But a hot drink can be more soothing if you only have a dry throat. Keeping a spoonful of honey in your mouth or sucking a sweet (liquorice) can also help. Do not give honey to children younger than 1 year old.
  • A spoonful of honey or a sweet (liquorice) can also soothe a tickly cough. Drink tea with honey or with sugar.
  • If you have a cough, you often have a cold (in Dutch). In that case, a saline nasal spray can help you feel better. It helps keep your nose clear.
  • Cough syrup and other cough medicines don’t help. They do not make you cough any less. And they do not dissolve the mucus. They also don’t help the cough clear up any faster.
When to call

When should I call my doctor for a cough?

Urgent: Call your GP or the out-of-hours service (huisartsenpost) immediately if you have a cough and any of the following symptoms:

  • coughing up clots of blood
  • shortness of breath when you are sitting or lying down quietly
  • wheezing
  • seriously ill: very drowsy, fever and rapid breathing

Call your GP or make an appointment (during office hours) if you are coughing and 1 of the following applies: 

  • if you have chest pain
  • if you have a fever for 4 days or more (higher than 38°C, take your temperature rectally)
  • if you have a fever again after a few fever-free days
  • if you are over 75 years old
  • if you have a weakened immune system (for example, if you are taking prednisone or receiving chemotherapy)
  • if you have a cough for more than 3 weeks
  • if you often have periods of coughing (especially if you smoke)

What might be different from your home country?

Doctors in the Netherlands are less likely to prescribe antibiotics and other medication because of their possible disadvantages. Read more.

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