Usually a cough is a symptom of illness or allergies. You cough a few times–or for a few days–and then it goes away. You aren’t supposed to cough every day all day.
But sometimes, coughs can last a long time. You feel fine, but you just can’t stop coughing. You cough at the grocery store, at the movies (and get a few dirty looks in the process), in your car–everywhere. And you, very understandably, think: why won’t my cough go away?
Is a persistent cough a concern? Well, sometimes a persistent cough can be little more than obnoxious; in other cases, it might be a sign of serious illness. Either way, getting to the bottom of the reason can be a good move.
Persistent coughs can be, well, annoying
Persistent coughs can be somewhat obnoxious. That’s because a cough isn’t exactly a gentle experience. Even a low-key persistent cough can dramatically (and negatively) impact your life–thanks to those violent eruptions of air.
There are a couple of ways that a persistent cough might impact your overall quality of life:
- Social stigma: Everyone is still on high alert for Covid. That’s understandable, and probably wise! In part because of this, however, anyone who coughs immediately becomes a persona non grata. People will try to stay far away from you, avoid eye contact, and basically pretend you don’t exist. Even if your cough is non-contagious, you’ll likely still experience a high degree of social stigma. And that’s not fun for anyone.
- Trouble sleeping: Even a light cough can wake you up from slumber–or keep you from falling asleep in the first place. Nothing is more annoying than being on the cusp of drifting off to dreamland only to be woken up by a coughing fit.
- Trouble eating: A cough that is very persistent can make eating something of a challenge. That’s mostly because your esophagus can only handle one direction of flow at a time; if air is moving up, food is not able to move down (at least, not without a good amount of choking and additional coughing). As a result, a chronic cough can make eating a challenge.
Defining a persistent cough
So, how do you tell a persistent cough from a lingering cold? Well, one of the simple diagnostic factors is duration: how long has the cough lasted? In general, a cough that lasts for 6-8 weeks or more is considered a chronic or persistent cough.
There are other symptoms that can accompany a persistent cough, however. Those symptoms include:
- Post nasal drip
- A sore throat (especially if you’re clearing your throat often)
- Losing weight
- Sweating overnight
- Coughing up blood
- Shortness of breath and wheezing
- In some cases, a cough and a fever
These symptoms vary in severity. In general, however, if you experience any of these symptoms, you should talk to your doctor about your treatment options.
What can cause a persistent cough?
A persistent cough is not a disease itself–it’s typically a symptom of something else that’s happening in your body, so it’s good to get a persistent cough checked out. Some of them are serious; some of them less so.
The most common causes include the following:
- Lung diseases: Many lung diseases, such as COPD, asthma, and pulmonary fibrosis, can cause chronic coughing. Asthma is relatively common and can often be effectively managed with lifestyle choices and medications. However, diseases such as COPD are harder to treat. COPD is degenerative and can impact your breathing over time. It may also cause you to cough more often.
- Allergies: Most people think of sneezing as a sign of allergies. But that’s not always the case. Allergic reactions can also often cause coughing. If you notice your persistent cough is more common in the spring or summer, for example, you may want to ask your provider if they think you may have allergies. (And in these cases, undergoing an allergy test can provide you with a lot of answers.)
- Sinus problems: Your sinuses are large cavities found inside your face (we know how that sounds–but they’re behind your nose and under your eyes). Problems with your sinuses (such as infections) can cause post nasal drip–and that post nasal drip can cause you to cough. Sinus problems can be treated by medication or by surgery, depending on the root cause.
- Digestive issues: Sometimes acid reflux or a condition called GERD can also cause you to cough. In these cases, your body is reacting to the stomach acid or bile that’s traveling up your esophagus. It’s about as much fun as it sounds. In these cases, you’ll want to talk to your doctor about the best way to treat your digestive issues.
- Medications: In some cases, your medications may cause a reaction that causes coughing. Your provider should be pretty well versed in these reactions, so make sure to touch base. Sometimes, it will be possible to switch your medication to something less irritating.
- Smoking: This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone anymore, but smoking can cause significant problems for your overall health. And it can lead to all kinds of lung issues, including a persistent cough. If you’re lucky, this cough is caused by tar and other contaminants stuck in your lungs. If you’re less lucky, the cough will be caused by long-term damage that’s a direct result of your smoking. In either case, your lungs will thank you if you stop smoking immediately.
Pulmonary diseases like this can often be slowed, but not necessarily cured.
When to be concerned about your chronic cough
So, when should you worry? In most cases, your cough will go away on its own. But if it’s sticking around for more than 6-8 weeks–and if it doesn’t respond to over-the-counter medications at all, then it might be time to call your provider and schedule an appointment.
Even if your cough goes away, it’s never a bad idea to check in on the health of your lungs, your throat, and your pulmonary system. So talk to your ENT or primary healthcare provider today!