Have you ever noticed that no matter how long your most recent cold lasted, the ensuing cough seemed to go on much longer?
“Don’t worry, I’m not sick anymore, I’m just coughing from a cold I had last month,” you might say at a get-together with friends after your hacking and throat-clearing has everyone convinced you’re spreading fresh germs around. But a cough that lingers long after the end of the actual cold is a real thing. Why does it happen?
Your cough is initially your body’s way of healing from a cold, Scott Burger, DO, Chief Medical Officer at the University of Maryland Urgent Care, explains. “When a person coughs, it is a forceful exhalation of a lot of air, more than what one exhales during a typical breath,” he says. “This serves a number of purposes, including helping to push mucous up and out of the airways, as well as forcing out any ‘trapped’ air that a person may not be effectively exhaling.”
That’s all well and good (or unwell and not particularly good), but why does a cough overstay its welcome? Are antibiotics required to kick it? Could it be unrelated to a cold virus? Read on to find out what might be behind your lingering cough.
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Even when the other obnoxious symptoms of a cold have passed, your body is still ridding itself of the virus.
“While our bodies do a great job in general of fighting off viruses relatively quickly, it is not uncommon for the inflammation to linger and for it to take time for our bodies to clear the excessive mucus that was produced in response to the virus,” explains Burger, adding that “If our throats remain irritated after we feel better, it can also cause the cough to linger.”
Sometimes when a cold virus is finally gone, it leaves you a parting gift in the form of an infection like bronchitis.
“Bronchitis is a type of infection that causes the airways of the lungs, known as the bronchi, to become irritated and inflamed,” says Healthline. “This can cause a hacking cough, which may also bring up clear, green, or yellow-gray mucus.” Healthline warns that bronchitis can mimic the symptoms of a cold, when in fact it might need additional medical attention.
“Because most cases of bronchitis are caused by viral infections, antibiotics aren’t effective,” notes the Mayo Clinic. “However, if your doctor suspects that you have a bacterial infection, he or she may prescribe an antibiotic.”
According to Methodist Healthcare, people who have what is called “walking pneumonia” can sometimes mistake the symptoms for those of a common cold.
“If you have walking pneumonia, you may find yourself coughing so much that your chest becomes sore,” cautions the site, also noting that a dry cough can become wet, producing discolored phlegm. “And unlike a cold that resolves in a matter of days, the nagging cough associated with walking pneumonia could persist for weeks.”
Even if you’re not feeling downright terrible, you should check in with your healthcare provider if you think you may have walking pneumonia. “While it’s possible for people with walking pneumonia to (slowly) recover without treatment, many patients with a confirmed… infection benefit from antibiotics,” Methodist Healthcare says. “Antibiotics are very effective against walking pneumonia—typically a five to seven day course is prescribed.”
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While you might associate the term “asthma” with wheezing and difficulty breathing, there’s actually a type of asthma known as cough-variant asthma, in which “the only symptom is a chronic cough,” explains the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (ACAAI).
“People with this kind of asthma generally don’t get relief from over-the-counter cough medicine; successful treatment requires prescription asthma medication, often in the form of inhalers,” they say.
Believe it or not, your lingering cough might not have anything to do with a recent illness. Rather, it could be a sign of acid reflux.
“When you have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), acid from your stomach backs up into your esophagus,” Verywell Health explains. “If the acid is breathed in, it can make you cough. Irritation from the acid reflux in the throat can also cause coughing.”
How do you know if your cough is due to GERD or something else? The site suggests looking for other GERD symptoms, such as heartburn, chest pain, hoarseness, difficulty swallowing, and shortness of breath.