Have a Cough That Won’t Go Away? What it Could Mean, and When to Seek Treatment

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You’re not getting any sleep because your cough constantly wakes you up. You spend your days hacking up a lung, reminiscing fondly on the times when you didn’t feel that fiery urge in your throat every few minutes. You’ve actually started avoiding quiet places like the library because you’re embarrassed by the loud outbursts of your constant cough. Sound familiar? If so, you might be among the 12 percent of Americans who deal with chronic cough. But what’s at the root of your constant cough, and is it something you should be worried about? Read on for answers. 

Symptoms of Chronic Cough

A cough becomes chronic when it lasts longer than four weeks in children and eight weeks in adults. And since the common cold usually lasts about seven to 10 days, a chronic cough is usually indicative of another issue. Since accompanying symptoms can often shed light on what that issue is, let’s dive into chronic cough-associated symptoms before we talk about underlying causes. 

Besides a constant cough, you may also experience: 

  • Heartburn
  • Shortness of breath
  • A frequent need to clear your throat
  • Hoarseness of voice 
  • A stuffy or runny nose
  • A sour taste in your mouth
  • A sore throat
  • Postnasal drip, characterized by the feeling of liquid running down the back of your throat

Your cough will either be ‘wet’ or ‘dry.’ Wet coughs usually produce mucus or sputum, whereas a dry cough is non-productive, usually irritating the throat in the process. 

Causes of Chronic Cough

A cough accompanying a cold or the flu is normal; it helps clear the airways of anything impeding normal breathing. If your cough persists beyond the average seven to 10 day duration of the common cold, however—or if your cough was never even accompanied by a cold—another underlying cause might be at its root. 

Here are some of the most common causes of chronic cough: 

  • An infection. If your cough did accompany a cold, pneumonia, or the flu, keep in mind that it can linger for a while after the infection has cleared. There are other, less-common infections to be wary of, however, including fungal infections and tuberculosis. Tuberculosis (TB) isn’t common in the U.S.—there were only 9,025 reported cases in 2018—but the Centers for Disease Control reports that as many as 13 million Americans live with latent TB infection, which can turn into an active TB infection.
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). If you have COPD, you’re likely no stranger to frequent bouts of coughing (especially when you catch the flu). If you don’t, here are the facts: Often, it’s current or former smokers who develop COPD, which is a chronic inflammatory lung disease that obstructs airflow from the lungs. Emphysema is a common form of COPD, which is marked by damage to the lung’s air sacs, resulting in shortness of breath and often a chronic cough. 
  • Asthma. Asthma-related coughs can come and go depending on a number of factors, including seasonality, exposure to some chemicals, and whether or not you’ve recently dealt with an upper respiratory tract infection. A cough is, unsurprisingly, the main symptom of cough-variant asthma, exacerbations of which often come on due to exposure to cold air.
  • Postnasal drip. Your cough reflex exists to clear your airways of any obstructions. And since postnasal drip—also known as Upper Airway Cough Syndrome, or UACS—is marked by an overproduction of mucus which often drips down the back of your throat, it only makes sense that your cough reflex would be (constantly) triggered. 
  • Cystic fibrosis. Cystic fibrosis (CF) is a serious, inherited disease that thickens the mucus, causing it to become sticky and plug up your airways. A chronic cough is one of the main symptoms of CF—with medical treatment, though, symptoms can be eased. CF is rare to diagnose in adults, however; it’s usually diagnosed at a very young age. 
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). If your chronic cough is accompanied by heartburn or a sour taste in your mouth, it could be symptomatic of the acid reflux disease GERD. GERD is marked by stomach acid which flows up from your stomach into the tube that connects to your throat, in turn irritating it and causing a chronic cough. The cough can worsen GERD, which in turn worsens the cough, and on and on it goes until you seek medical treatment.

When (and Where) to Seek Treatment

If your cough has lasted more than eight weeks (or your child’s cough has lasted more than four), it’s time to seek medical treatment. This is especially true if your cough is accompanied by any symptoms listed above in addition to a fever of 103 or above, chest pain, difficulty breathing, or coughing up blood. 

It can be tough, however, to get seen quickly by medical providers when dealing with a chronic cough, especially when it’s accompanied by other symptoms. At DispatchHealth, we office convenient in-home medical care so you can stay cozied up in bed. Here’s how it works: Give us a call, use our website, or download our app to request medical attention. We’ll be at your doorstep within a few hours with nearly all of the equipment you’d find in the emergency room. We accept most major forms of medical insurance, including Medicare and Medicaid, and offer an affordable flat rate for uninsured patients. 

Skip the traffic and long wait times and let us come to you. Contact us today to request the care you need for your chronic cough. 

Sources

DispatchHealth relies only on authoritative sources, including medical associations, research institutions, and peer-reviewed medical studies. 

Sources referenced in this article: 

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18303101
  2. https://www.aafp.org/afp/2017/1101/p575.html
  3. https://www.cdc.gov/features/rhinoviruses/index.html
  4. https://www.cdc.gov/tb/statistics/default.htm
  5. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/that-nagging-cough
  6. https://www.cdc.gov/tb/publications/ltbi/ltbiresources.htm
  7. https://www.who.int/tb/areas-of-work/preventive-care/ltbi_faqs/en/

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