It’s the one symptom that can seem to stick around for days, even weeks, after our immune systems vanquish a virus – that wracking cough.
While the country focused for years on the transmission of COVID-19, we now face a bewildering assortment of viruses spreading rapidly through communities. For many, the uncertainty over whether or not they caught the flu, COVID-19, RSV or just a bad cold can add to the anxiety a lingering cough can produce.
“The thing about the cough is that that’s the symptom that is most nagging after a cold and can really last up to about 10 or 14 days,” Dr. Neha Vyas, a family medicine physician at the Cleveland Clinic, told Nexstar.
Vyas said she first looks at any underlying medical illness and additional symptoms her patients might have to see if a cough could turn into something more serious, such as pneumonia. Some potential big clues, Vyas said, are the type of cough – wet or dry – and whether or not a patient’s energy level has returned.
“If it’s just the cough and it’s dry and they feel like they’re back to their energy level chances are – and you know, it may linger for a few more weeks – eventually it will go away,” Vyas said. “But if they have some of those other things, then that leads me down a different path.”
So when is it time to seek medical advice?
A cough is one of the most common reasons for an office visit, according to a National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey, so if you got sick this November or December and were left with a seemingly-relentless cough, you aren’t alone.
“I usually tell people don’t worry about a cough if you’ve got mild symptoms and it’s lasting less than three weeks,” said Dr. William Checkley, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine who specializes in pulmonary and critical care. “Coughs can linger on in acute settings … just take care of it at home with over-the-counter medicines to help reduce the bother.”
There are situations in which you should see a doctor or even consider a trip to the emergency room, however.
“So for example, if the cough lasts more than three weeks, and then you’re having other symptoms like fever or you are feeling shortness of breath or you have a lot of mucus that is green or yellow in color,” Checkley said. “Are you having night sweats? Are you noticing that there’s weight loss associated with it? I think it’s a good time to go and see your primary care physician or visit an urgent care center.”
Other symptoms that could be indicative of a larger health issue and reason to seek immediate medical attention include coughing up blood, high fever, chest pain or confusion.
A cough that lasts more than eight weeks would be considered a chronic cough, Checkley said.
“There are cases where it could be related to significant inflammation from … a pretty nasty respiratory infection that could lead to a cough that lasts a long time,” according to Checkley. “Those are the ones you want to get evaluated.”
How to help a cough at home
Getting an accurate diagnosis when it comes to a nagging cough should definitely be left to a physician, but there are still things you can do to feel better at home.
Over-the-counter medications won’t cure a virus, but they can help loosen mucus in the lungs and reduce the cough reflex, Dr. Checkley said.
For adults, cough drops and tea with honey and lemon can reduce some irritation, Checkley said.
Honey should never be given to babies under 12 months of age, however, as it has been tied in rare cases to infant botulism.
You should also avoid giving adult medications to really young children, Checkley said.