What You Need to Know
If your cold ended several weeks ago, but the cough you developed while sick is still hanging on, you may be wondering what to do next. You might even be worried that it's a sign of something more serious.
According to Neil Sparks, DO, of Family Medicine - Reynolda, these types of persistent coughs are not uncommon. However, he explains what you should do if you're concerned about it.
Chronic Cough Causes
In most people, a cough is usually associated with an infection like the common cold. In these instances, the cough starts out as one of the body's protective responses against the virus. However, side effects of the illness, like postnasal drip, can prompt further coughing.
Other potential sources of persistent coughing include:
- Acid reflux
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Heart ailments
Rarely, cancer can be a cause.
It's a common misconception that people with ongoing episodes of coughing following viral infections have chronic bronchitis. True chronic bronchitis usually occurs in people with a history of lung damage, like COPD or heavy smoking. While "chronic bronchitis" can be a catchall term, it's often an inaccurate description of what's going on.
How Long Is Too Long?
If you're wondering whether you should have your cough checked out, there are guidelines that may help you make your decision.
- A cough generally isn't considered chronic until it has lasted longer than eight weeks. Because persistent coughs can be uncomfortable and irritating, it's not unreasonable to investigate a cough that has lingered for two to four weeks.
- In most cases, you'll notice improvement in your cough over time. However, if the cough persists without a reduction in frequency and severity-or, if it worsens-you should consider seeing a doctor.
- You will also want to seek medical evaluation if your persistent cough is accompanied by difficulty breathing, choking, high fever, chills, night sweats, weight loss, vomiting, coughing up blood or has a severe "bark"-like quality.
In addition, if you're producing mucus with your cough long after a cold has subsided, that's another possible sign of an underlying problem-such as irritation in the bronchi or deeper in the lungs. Incidentally, researchers have found that the color of the mucus (clear, yellow, green, etc.) isn't indicative of the problem behind the cough. It was once believed that the source of an infection could be determined by the color of the mucus produced. We now know that isn't an accurate indicator.
Getting Help for Your Cough
If you have a cold, it's a good idea to treat it early on. You can do this with rest, a good diet, fluids, and patience. Over-the-counter cold and cough medicines may help, however, it's important to note that such medicines shouldn't be taken for longer than a week or two. You will also want to consult with your doctor or pharmacist before taking cold medicines, particularly if you have an underlying health condition like high blood pressure.
Cough drops may help ease the tickle or irritation in your throat. And steam or saltwater gargles can help break up mucus. If those things aren't helpful and your cough worsens, has accompanying symptoms or goes on for a long period of time, make an appointment with your family doctor.
Dr. Neil Sparks is a family medicine doctor at Family Medicine - Reynolda in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
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