When to Worry About Your Cough That Isn’t Going Away

There’s nothing worse than a lingering cough. But sometimes, they can hold on forever. The tricky part about a cough is that it can be a symptom of a variety of conditions — especially when it sticks around. So, how do you know what’s a harmless cold or something more serious? We spoke to a few doctors to find out when to worry about a cough that won’t go away.

First, how long can a cough actually last?

“Some coughs can last up to two months. But if you have had a cough for eight weeks with no sign of improvement, you should see your doctor,” Dr. Rachel Taliercio, a pulmonologist at the Cleveland Clinic, tells SheKnows.

While most coughs are not serious, they can signal a more serious issue. That’s what happened to Jenni Ottum, who went to the doctor after experiencing a persistent cough for a few months.

“I was convinced I had bronchitis or walking pneumonia,” she tells SheKnows.

She was given antibiotics and had blood work done, which came back irregular. Her doctors had her get a chest x-ray. It showed a tumor on her right lung that after more tests and a biopsy was rare form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that required chemotherapy.

“I would tell people to never put their health off. If something isn’t right, don’t let it go. Your health is all you have,” Ottum adds.

Of course, not every long-lasting cough means you have cancer. But when is your cough just annoying, and when is it something to worry about? Here are five possible causes for your cough and how you can treat it.

Postnasal drip

Symptoms

“People often have a cough that can be either wet or dry. Sometimes, they can feel the congestion dripping from their sinuses down the throat into the airway. Most people know they have sinus congestion, only some are aware that it drips down and causes a cough,” Dr. A. Christine Argento, an interventional pulmonologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, tells SheKnows.

How it’s treated

Typically, nasal sprays will do the trick for postnasal drip. They can include steroids or just saline (saltwater). Other treatments to clear the sinuses include a sinus rinse or neti pot.

“In severe cases, this may require a procedure with an ear, nose and throat doctor to address along with antibiotics,” says Argento.

Asthma

Symptoms

The persistent cough associated with asthma is usually dry, and Argento says it can sometimes be the only symptom of asthma.

The cough might be worse with exercise or exposure to cold or certain smells or chemicals, she adds. And other symptoms of asthma include chest tightness, shortness of breath and wheezing.

How it’s treated

Asthma is typically treated with inhaler medications, but some patients with severe asthma may need steroids, biologic agents or a procedure called bronchial thermoplasty, Argento explains.

Allergies

Symptoms

Allergies are a very common cause of coughs,” Taliercio explains. Allergies usually come with a dry cough that can be persistent, especially if you are near or around an irritant.

How it’s treated

Similar to asthma, allergies are often treated with nasal sprays as well as antihistamines, Taliercio says.

Acid Reflux

Symptoms

Acid reflux is typically a dry cough accompanied by a bad taste in your mouth.

“Heartburn creates a burning feeling that starts in the center of your chest just under the rib cage and moves upwards, particularly after large meals or after acidic or caffeinated food/beverages,” says Argento.

It can also happen after you lie down too quickly after eating a meal.

How it’s treated

You can take an acid suppressant to treat mild acid reflux. “They can be taken once or twice a day, typically before breakfast and/or dinner,” Argento explains.

Pneumonia

Symptoms

Pneumonia can have a cough with phlegm production that is often green or yellow and thick, according to Argento. Some people feel chest pain or discomfort, particularly when they cough or take a deep breath in. Most people will also have a fever, possibly with a sore throat and fatigue or weakness. And it can be caused by bacteria, viruses or fungi.

How it’s treated

If the pneumonia is bacterial, then it can be treated with antibiotics, Argento explains. “Viral pneumonias will resolve with hydration, rest and supportive care,” she adds. “Fungal pneumonias are seen in immune-compromised patients and are very serious. There are antifungal medications that are used to treat these types of pneumonia.”

The bottom line is that if you’ve had a cough that’s not going away, it’s definitely time to see your doctor to find out what’s causing it and how to stop it.

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