What to Know About a Lingering Cough

Mihir Parikh, MD Division of Thoracic Surgery & Interventional Pulmonology

FEBRUARY 01, 2017

Perhaps you’re reading this late at night, kept wide awake by a lingering cough that’s lasted well into its second week. You’ve tried all the normal remedies — gargling with salt water, spoonfuls of honey, mug after mug of delicious herbal tea — but nothing seems to help. So, should you be worried? Maybe not. Studies show that most coughs have an average duration of 18 days. But a cough that appears out of nowhere and lasts for more than a few weeks could be cause for concern. Here’s what you should know.

Irritation from cold or flu

A lingering cough is often nothing more than the aftermath of a cold or flu. Even several days after a cold’s symptoms have gone away, a cough can linger because of damage, irritation or oversensitivity to your lungs and respiratory system.

Asthma

A dry cough that gets worse at night and causes shortness of breath could be a sign of asthma. Asthma-related coughs can appear after a respiratory tract infection, show up seasonally or become worse in cold, dry air or after using certain cleaning products or fragrances.

Stress

Chronic stress can make illnesses last longer and, in some cases, can cause physical symptoms such as a lingering cough. Somewhat paradoxically, a cough itself can cause stress and anxiety. The best way to manage this is to slow down, get plenty of rest and consider taking a few days off work. Pushing yourself too hard can cause symptoms to linger or even get worse.

Acid Reflux

A lingering cough might mean you’re suffering from acid reflux. This might even be silent reflux so you may not experience the normal symptoms of heartburn and indigestion. Try to avoid eating or drinking close to bedtime and avoid potential triggers such as greasy foods, caffeine and alcohol.

An unhealthy environment

Your lingering cough could come from working or spending time in an environment that’s high in allergens, dust or poor air quality. Environment-related coughs are often dry coughs and are sometimes connected to other symptoms such as a dry, sore throat.

Virus or Bacterial infection

A very common cause of a cough is a respiratory tract infection, such as a cold or flu. Respiratory tract infections can last for several weeks and tend to persist longer than other symptoms because of inflammation in your airways. There’s no quick fix here, but rest and staying well hydrated certainly help.

Underlying health problems

Less commonly, a lingering cough could be a sign of a more severe health problem such as damaged airways or lung disease. Make sure to talk to your doctor if your cough lingers for more than a few weeks, especially if your coughing brings up blood, causes insomnia or stops you from going to school or work.

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.