A Cough That Won't Stop

November 1, 2017

Mark L. Friedman, MD, FACEP, FACP

When you think about SPEED, what comes to mind? A cheetah sprinting across the savannah? A bullet train speeding along the coast? A race car blurring past the finish line?

Few would imagine but the speed of a human cough can approach 500 miles per hour. As if that force wasn’t enough to startle you, up to 3000 tiny droplets of saliva are fired out into the air when we cough, according to “The Gross Science of a Cough and a Sneeze” at Live Science. Mom was definitely on to something with that “always cover your mouth when you cough” speech.

Why do we cough?

A cough is the body's way of responding to an irritation or blockage in the throat or airway. It is a forceful response intended to clear the airway of foreign particles or mucus resulting from an infection. It is hard to imagine that one 500 mile per hour blast wouldn’t do the trick, but as we all know, coughs can linger on for days, weeks and even months. More than any other health condition, coughs are famous for their ability to stubbornly stick around--becoming the cliche annoyed hackers just want to forget.

The Mayo Clinic defines two types of coughs--acute (lasting less than three weeks) and chronic (lasting longer than eight weeks in adults and four in children). Acute coughs typically are the result of colds, flu, inhaling an irritant or some other virus or respiratory infection. Chronic coughs are usually the result of long term conditions such as allergies, asthma, COPD, emphysema, GERD, croup or bronchitis. Many coughs start out as the result of a virus or respiratory infection and worsen over time--for example a cold turning into bronchitis.

What are some treatments?

According to the Mayo Clinic the following self-care measures may be helpful in easing the  discomfort of coughs. 

  • Over counter cough medicines--these are good for general symptoms when cause is unknown. Remember to follow specific directions and consult your First Stop Health telemedicine with questions.
  • Cough drops--these can ease the dryness and irritating tickle of lighter, surface coughing.
  • Warm, moist air--running a humidifier or taking a hot, steamy shower can help but don’t overdo the steam as your body can view this as irritant.
  • Fluid intake--drinking lots of fluids can help thin and loosen the mucus, especially warm liquids like tea and broth.
  • Avoid irritants like pollen and smoke--consider planning inside activities when air quality is poor to allow your sensitive, irritated airways to heal.

When should you seek care for a cough?

A warning sign to seek treatment is when a cough lasts for an extended period of time (a few weeks) without signs of improvement. Another red flag is a deep, wet cough (lots of mucus or phlegm), especially if the discharge is bloody or pinkish in color. It’s definitely time to seek treatment if a prolonged fever (100 degrees for more than 3 days), shortness of breath or wheezing is noted. Emergency care should be initiated immediately if breathing is severely compromised.  

When your cough won’t go away First Stop Health doctors are well prepared to diagnose your cough over the phone--in 2016, 14% of First Stop Health visits were cough related. In addition,12% of avoided ER visits were for cough-related symptoms.

Your cough may have “a NEED...a NEED for SPEED,” and so does First Stop Health. Most of our members that request to talk to a doctor are connected in less than 10 minutes! There is no need to continue with that annoying cough and hope it will just go away. Call your First Stop Health doctor to get a diagnosis and a solution.

Originally published Nov 1, 2017 12:00:00 PM.