Dr Keith Hopcroft : Winter coughs are common but how do you know when it's safe to soldier on and when do you need to see a doctor?

ARE you sitting in your GP’s waiting room?

In that case, you might well have a cough.

And if not, you will probably get one soon because the chances are someone is coughing over you.

As always at this time of year there’s a lot of it about, whereas there aren’t that many appointments to be had.

So how do you know when it’s safe to soldier on with your cough and when you really do need medical help?

Simple: Read this.

The vast majority of coughs are caused by winter viruses.

They’re a nuisance and go on for longer than you’d expect but they won’t cause you any serious harm.

Clues are that it starts with a sore throat, snuffles and maybe a slight temperature.

Then the cough kicks in — at first dry and irritating, then loose and phlegmy.

There’s not much you can do other than take plenty of fluids, pop some paracetamol if you’re achy or your throat is bad, and let nature take its course.

It’s often three weeks or more before it fully clears.

Signs that you need a doc include a high fever, breath­lessness and feeling increasingly unwell.

This could mean bronchitis or pneumonia.

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A sharp pain when you breathe in can be important too, although that might just be a sore rib from coughing.

But, contrary to popular belief, the colour of your phlegm doesn’t matter.

Having yellow or green spit doesn’t prove you have a chest infection because it can go a nasty colour with a simple cold, too.

The exception is if you already have dodgy lungs — such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, aka emphysema — in which case, coloured spit means you probably need antibiotics.

And coughing up blood should be taken seriously, too, unless it’s just a tiny streak as a one-off after a really vigorous cough.

Some simple viruses can cause coughs that end up going way beyond the three-week average.

That’s because they make your lungs “irritable” so temperature changes or talking, for example, set you off.

This can drag on for a couple of months.

But the longer your cough persists, the more sensible it is to see your doc, especially if you have other symptoms such as breathlessness or weight loss.

Because, if there’s no improvement after some weeks, you may have an infection needing a dose of antibiotics to shift it.

Or there might be some other cause and, yes, that does include the Big C, especially if you’re over 45 and a smoker.

That’s why your GP may arrange a chest X-ray if your cough is persisting.

Thankfully, most of the causes of a prolonged cough aren’t so serious.

They include your throat being irritated either by nasal catarrh dripping down it, or stomach acid flowing up it.

Both are easily treated by your GP.

Another possibility is a medication side-effect.

Drugs ending in “pril”, such as ramipril or perindopril used for high blood pressure and heart trouble, often cause an irritating cough which goes when the medication is stopped.

Your doc will advise.

Then there’s asthma.

This usually results in wheezing but sometimes causes a cough instead so your GP may see if an inhaler does the trick.

So, one way or another, your cough should get sorted either because it will fizzle out on its own or because you get treatment for whatever is causing it.

And now you know when you really do need an appointment.

With any luck, though, it won’t be that cough that carries you off.

Nor anything else for a while yet . . .

Ask our Sun health experts


I LOVE doing yoga but no matter how much I try I don’t see much improvement. Is it really doing my body any good? Will I ever be able to do the downward dog? KASIE, Birmingham

I recommend you compliment yoga with another form of exercise. A great one to partner yoga is power walking.
There are many components of fitness – cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength, muscular endurance, flexibility, and body composition.



Yoga will focus on the flexibility and muscular strength. Walking will target the other components and stretch out the muscles through your legs, which will increase your flexibility for the downward dog.


Schedule three walks a week. Just 15 minutes will be ideal but do make sure you keep a fast pace.

Nutritionist: Amanda Ursell

WHAT is the difference between refined and unrefined sugar?
AMY, Chingford, NE London

Not much.

Any added sugar counts towards your daily maximum of 30g of added sugars – whether it is brown or white or in the form of honey, coconut sugar, agave nectar, molasses or treacle.

The only sugars that don’t count towards this total is fructose, the sugar in fruit.

However, as soon as you blend, squeeze or juice fruit, these sugars are “free” and do count.

The other sugar that doesn’t count is lactose (milk sugar) found in cows’ and goats’ milk and yoghurts made from these.
Check out the Change4Life Sugar Smart app to help calculate the sugar content of foods and drinks in your diet.


MY mother died in December and I’m struggling to cope. I just can’tmove on. Can you help? DIANA, Edinburgh

I am so sorry. Grief is never easy and can feel even more difficult over the festive season.

Firstly, it is far too early for you to move on. Your mother is a significant loss and these take a great deal of time to process.


Surround yourself with people who care and talk about her as often as you need. If you don’t feel you have a support network, speak to your GP about grief counselling, or join a grief support group.


You need and deserve kindness, support and time and you have to be willing to allow yourself these.
Diana, you are at the beginning of grief’s difficult territory, allow yourself the stillness required before movement can recommence.

GP: Dr Keith Hopcroft

I’M struggling with psoriasis.

My skin feels really itchy and sore.

Do I need to see my GP or is there something I can pick up at the chemist to help?
KATE, by email


You probably do need to see your doc.

There’s not much you can buy over the counter although moisturisers may ease mild symptoms.

Besides, it’s best to get your GP to confirm the diagnosis.

Psoriasis typically causes thick, scaly patches on the elbows, knees and scalp.

But it’s not usually itchy, so it may be that you have some other condition, such as eczema.

Assuming your problem really is psoriasis, there are loads of creams and scalp applications your GP can prescribe – it can be trial and error finding the one that suits you best.

And if all else fails, he can refer you to a specialist.



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