This time of year especially, coughs seem to stick around forever. Here in Austin, the culprit may be seasonal allergies, but overall the major cause of persistent coughs is viral upper respiratory infections- from both simple “colds” and the big, bad flu. With these infections, after you get past the headaches, and stuffy nose part, you find yourself coughing- often up to SIX WEEKS after the initial illness. Sometimes it’s a minor “clear your throat” type of cough, while other times, it’s the crazy fits of coughing that keep you from sleeping.
Is there anything that can be done for a cough that wont go away? Yes, but a cough does NOT mean you definitely need an antibiotic- in fact, typically, you do NOT. However, a cough that is not managed with over the counter medicines should be addressed by your physician. Coughing all day long at school or work (or keeping up your spouse with coughing all night) is NOT a good plan!
What can your doctor do? First of all, she does need to rule out any secondary infection such as a pneumonia. If you are a week into your symptoms, and suddenly you feel a ton worse and develop a fever, this might be a bacterial infection setting up shop AFTER the virus cleared the way past your body’s defenses. For this scenario, yes, you need an antibiotic. More commonly, though, you may have developed some over-reactive airways and may benefit from some inhalers or other asthma-style of medicines. A prescription cough syrup used at night may help with the nighttime exacerbations, and your doctor can remind you of some traditional home remedies such as cool mist humidifiers that may help. Finally, sometimes a cough comes from other sources, such as acid reflux or sinus drainage, which require different treatments.
BOTTOM LINE: See your doctor to evaluate coughs that get worse after a respiratory illness, or that wont go away- don’t expect antibiotics, but know there are other treatment options!!