If you have a worsening cough, get to the emergency room because it can be serious; here’s what’s involved.

When my mother developed a cough with phlegm that sounded horrible — and after several days was only worse  — I took her to the ER, suspecting pneumonia.

My mother was taken to a room in the ER, and soon the doctor appeared. The doctor asked her many questions.

If you go to the ER with a cough, the doctor will ask a lot of questions.

This includes if you have symptoms other than the cough such as fever or chills.

This helps guide the doctor in suspecting viral versus bacterial pneumonia.

“If a cough is rapidly worsening, it is crucial to seek medical attention promptly,” says Alice Benjamin, a clinical nurse specialist, and chief nursing officer and correspondent for nurse.org.

She explains, “Early intervention can lead to earlier diagnosis and initiation of appropriate treatment.

“Delaying medical care can allow the condition to worsen, potentially leading to more severe complications and a more challenging recovery.”

Pneumonia, which can be life-threatening at any age, isn’t the only potentially serious problem of a cough.

Benjamin points out that it may also be caused by congestive heart failure and lung cancer, though bronchitis can also be the culprit.

The doctor ordered a chest X ray for my mother, then had the nurse come in and give her a five minute albuterol treatment, in which she breathed into and out of a hand-held tube device that expelled vapors.

Vitals were taken, but a blood test was not taken (though lab tests are typically taken).

The doctor seemed very sure that the coughing was either from pneumonia or bronchitis.

In fact, after listening with a stethoscope, he said he heard wheezing, which he thought was likely caused by bronchitis.

The chest X ray showed “a little” pneumonia. The doctor then prescribed an antibiotic called Levoquin.

She was given one 500 mg pill right there (about 10 pm), then discharged with an albuterol inhalation pump.

The ER visit wasn’t that long, but of course, length of stay will depend on how busy the emergency room is, and whether a patient gets “bumped” by an incoming patient with a more serious presentation.

The ER facility need not be a hospital; it can be an urgent care facility, which is fully equipped to deal with cases of pneumonia.

I’ve taken my mother to an urgent care facility as well for a worsening cough.

An ER visit for a bad cough is well-worth the time investment.

A bad cough that goes untreated can turn out to be pneumonia, which the Centers for Disease Control says kills about 50,000 Americans a year.

“Visiting the emergency room for a rapidly worsening cough, especially for individuals over the age of 65, is important for several reasons,” says Benjamin.

“A rapidly worsening cough can be a sign of respiratory distress, which may result in decreased oxygen levels in the blood.

“Hypoxia (low oxygen levels) can be particularly dangerous for older adults and can lead to confusion, dizziness and organ damage.

“ER staff can quickly assess oxygen levels and provide appropriate interventions.”

Older adults are also at higher risk of developing serious complications from respiratory infections, but younger adults are not immune to this outcome, either.

“The ER is equipped to evaluate and manage these types of emergencies promptly,” says Benjamin.

Alice Benjamin, APRN, is Chief Nursing Officer & Correspondent for Nurse.org. In addition to being a clinical nurse specialist and family nurse practitioner, she also has 20+ years of experience in critical care and emergency medicine, and gives podcasts on health.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer.  
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