Coughing is a reflex action started when the nerve endings in our respiratory passages (the tubes we use to breathe) are stimulated. Coughing is a symptom, not a disease itself so it is the underlying cause of the coughing that needs to be treated. The coughing reflex is trying to get rid of foreign objects or excess mucus in our airways that may interfere with our breathing. There are many different causes of cough. See the Netdoctor website for more details. In some cases coughing is caused by an infection of our airways (called an lower respiratory tract infection – LRTI). Part of our airways response to infection is to produce more mucus to try to flush out the germs (see the immune system section for more details). We then cough to get rid of the mucus and the germs. Many of these infections are caused by viruses, for which treatment with antibiotics will not help (see the antibiotics section of this site for an explanation) and the infection should be left to run its course. Usually an infection will clear up in 1 to 2 weeks and the cough should stop, although often the symptoms can go on for longer. If your doctor suspects your infection is caused by bacteria then he/ she may prescribe you antibiotics.
The potential benefits of treating most coughs with antibiotics may be outweighed by risks associated with antibiotic treatment e.g. nausea, diarrhoea (see the antibiotic section of this site for more details). However, antibiotics are needed in more serious infections such as pneumonia, which are more serious in older people and in people with other co-existent illnesses