by Lara Carsten

No coughing matter

A cough may be caused by something more serious than a virus

The average cough can last for up to two weeks
Antibiotics won't help most coughs

Coughs often last longer than we realise and, in reality, it is quite likely to last for up to two weeks.

In a recent study, researchers asked 500 adults how long a cough should last in different situations such as when accompanied by a fever, or not. They compared these answers to those found in medical literature.

Bottom line: there is a disconnect between how long people think a cough should last and how long it actually does. 

Antibiotics will not help most coughs

People in the study who had previously taken antibiotics for a cough were more likely to believe that antibiotics are always helpful for cough. But antibiotics do not treat viruses, and using them when they are not needed can lead to antibiotic resistance.

Although those who received antibiotics for a cough due to a cold virus may start to feel better, it is often merely the cough getting better on its own. 

Still, there are some red flags that a cough may be caused by something more serious than a virus.

These include coughs accompanied by:

  • Brown or bloodied sputum
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Body aches
  • Sudden onset of symptoms
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Hoarseness
  • Trouble swallowing

People with chronic lung diseases such as asthma should take their cough more seriously.

"Coughs lasting 10 days or thereabouts are deemed normal,” says Dr Henry Milgrom. He is a professor of pediatrics at National Jewish Health in Denver. Still, he says, “we don’t want to miss something that is infectious and treatable. Somebody who has a cough that is productive and a fever, may have pneumonia or sinusitis or another treatable infectious disease that we would want to address quickly.”

In this scenario, do not waste time, he says. But, “if you are getting over a cold, have no fever, and no underlying lung disease, a cough can safely last for weeks.”


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