How to Get Rid of a Lingering Cough (Plus When to Actually See a Doctor About It)

·6 min read
How to Get Rid of a Lingering Cough (Plus When to Actually See a Doctor About It)

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Dealing with any kind of upper respiratory illness is frustrating, annoying, and uncomfortable, and there’s a definite range in severity depending on what kind of sickness you have. Still, it can be a relief to finally move on after having a cold, the flu, or COVID-19. Unless…you’re stuck with a lingering cough.

After all, it can be tricky to convince people that you’re no longer sick (and infectious) when you’re still coughing a bunch. Unfortunately, lingering coughs can and do happen to people.

Most cold symptoms disappear in seven to 10 days, but research shows that the average cold victim is still coughing on day 18. It’s also not uncommon to have a lingering cough once you’re no longer infectious with COVID-19 or the flu, says Thomas Russo, M.D., professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York.

OK, so what should you do if you find yourself in this situation? And why does a lingering cough happen anyway? Here’s what you need to know.

How to get rid of a lingering cough

✔️ Enjoy some honey.

Warm tea with honey can calm a scratchy throat; the hot liquid breaks up mucus in the chest and sinuses, and honey has natural antibacterial properties that may help fight the infection. A spoonful of honey may ease a cough on its own—one study found that in children 2 and older, it can be as effective as dextromethorphan, one of the main ingredients in OTC cough suppressants.

✔️ Try a steam facial

There’s a reason a piping hot shower feels so nice when you’re sick—hot, humid air helps clear up cough-inducing mucus and moisturizes nasal passages and airways for easier breathing. Eucalyptus has antiviral and antimicrobial properties that can give steam a boost, so add leaves or a few drops of essential oil to boiling water, then inhale deeply.

✔️ Get some meds

When you really can’t stop coughing, try OTC medications with antitussives (cough suppressants) and expectorants (mucus thinners); if they don’t help, your doctor can prescribe something stronger. You should only use over-the-counter cold medicines for one week. After that, these meds become less effective, so it’s better to suck on a lozenge to soothe your itchy throat.

✔️ Stay hydrated

Sure, drinking water isn’t going to magically make your cough go away, but behind dehydrated will work against you. In fact, Omid Mehdizadeh, M.D., an otolaryngologist and laryngologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., says that “proper hydration” and tea is one of the “most effective ways to manage a cough.” Why? If you’re dehydrated, your oral mucosa (the mucous membrane lining inside of your mouth) dries out, and that can make you feel more irritated, Dr. Russo says.

Neti pots and sinus rinses can get rid of excess mucus, but use only once a day so as not to remove too much snot (which has infection-fighting white blood cells) and dry things out.

What causes a lingering cough?

Doctors say are a few things that can be behind your lingering cough. “A cough can linger longer than other symptoms because the immune system is still trying to get the airways back to normal,” says Nicole M. Tyer, M.D., internal medicine specialist at Cedars Sinai Medical Group in Los Angeles.

That can leave some lingering inflammation and even damage, which then makes you feel like you need to cough, Dr. Russo says. “You have a tendency to cough when this happens because those surfaces are very irritable,” he explains.

As your congestion clears up, postnasal drip can also trigger a cough, if you happen to have it, says Kathryn Boling, M.D., a primary care physician at Baltimore's Mercy Medical Center.

There’s also this to consider, per Dr. Boling: You could end up developing a cough due to something else. “I see a lot of people who get sick with a viral illness in the spring and then they have allergies afterward,” she says. “That can also cause a cough.” Even gastric reflux can cause a cough that you may assume is linked to your viral illness, she says.

And, of course, it’s possible to develop a secondary bacterial infection like bronchitis or sinusitis after your viral illness is over. “That often involves different symptoms though, like sinus pain and a fever,” Dr. Russo says.

How long will your lingering cough last?

It depends. Dr. Russo says it’s not out of the ordinary for a cough to last for “weeks, even up to a month” after a viral illness while your body heals. “It can be a long, meddlesome process,” he says.

How to prevent a lingering cough

✔️ Protect yourself.

The easiest way to ward off a lingering cough is to avoid getting sick in the first place. Be vigilant about washing your hands after being out in public, touching common surfaces, or being around ill people. It’s also important to be up to date on your COVID-19 and flu vaccines. If you do feel symptoms creeping up, try zinc or elderberry; studies suggest that both may shorten a cold when taken at the first sign of symptoms.

✔️ Rest up

Sleep is when your body naturally repairs itself, and when you’re sick, it gives your immune system time to fight. “Resting can help reduce the overall duration of symptoms,” says Dr. Tyer. If your cough keeps you awake, prop your head up about 15 degrees with extra pillows; this helps open up air passages so you can breathe more easily and may prevent mucus buildup in your throat.

✔️ Be mindful of your air.

When you’re hacking away, avoid irritants that can worsen your cough or make it linger longer. Steer clear of smoke, perfume, and anything you’re allergic to. Air purifiers can remove dust, dander, and other particles that may tickle your throat. Heaters dry air out, which can irritate a cough, so a humidifier can help by adding back moisture.

When to see a doctor for a lingering cough

If you have a cough after you recover from an illness but it seems to be getting better over time, Dr. Boling says it’s pretty safe to assume it’s just “post-inflammatory cough.” But, if your cough continues at the same level and it’s not getting better, she recommends consulting your doctor. You’ll also want to call if you’ve developed a fever, pain, or other new symptoms, Dr. Russo says.

This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of Prevention.

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