When you cough, you probably assume you're sick. But did you know that coughing, instead of hurting your body, actually helps it heal and protect itself? This is because coughing is a reflex that keeps your throat and airways clear. In other words, it's working to prevent sickness.

There are two types of coughs: acute and chronic. If you find yourself coughing for 2 to 3 weeks, you are most likely experiencing the effects of a common cold or the flu. This is an acute cough. These are benign and can be treated by drinking lots of water and beverages with vitamin C, such as orange juice. Antihistamines can also help be helpful; according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), antihistamines may work better than non-prescription cough medicines.

Chronic coughs are the ones to worry about. They last longer than 2 to 3 weeks and can be caused by asthma, allergies, smoking, and throat disorders. While they can become dangerous, they may start off as innocuously as an acute cough. So how do you know when to start worrying about your cough? According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, here are some symptoms to identify.

Recently, have you:

Inhaled dust particles, or an object or coughed up blood?
You may have an irritation of the airway, which can be serious if the inhalant remains in the airway.

Coughed up yellow, tan, or green mucus?
You may have chronic bronchitis or, if you have a fever and are experiencing chills, pneumonia.

Experienced shortness of breath and wheezing?
You may have asthma.

Been diagnosed with heart problems?
Persistent coughing can be caused by congestive heart failure.

Noticed shortness of breath after activity, swelling in the legs - OR - had a fever, night sweats, and chest pain when you cough or breathe deeply?
This could be caused by tuberculosis.

Unintentionally lost weight, coughed up bloody sputum, or experienced shortness of breath?
This could be a sign of a serious condition like lung cancer.

Ran short of breath and/or coughed up pink, frothy mucus - OR - experienced sharp chest pains, a rapid heartbeat, swelling of the legs, or a sudden shortness of breath?
These may be indicative of the serious conditions pulmonary edema - OR - pulmonary embolism. They are emergencies and you must seek immediate treatment.

The bottom line is, if you haven't experienced any of these symptoms over a period of 2 to 3 weeks, you might have just an acute cough. But if you have experienced ANY of them, it's important to see your doctor immediately.