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Why your cough won’t quit

By Summa Published: February 23, 2017

Are you fed up with your stubborn cough? There are many reasons why a cough may not improve. Let’s take a look at a few of them:

Reason 1: Irritated Airways After a Cold, Flu, or Bronchitis

The most common cause of chronic cough is predictable. It's the aftermath of a cold or other viral infection. Most cold symptoms may go away after a few days. Your cough, though, can hang around for weeks because viruses can cause your airways to become swollen and oversensitive. This can last long after the virus is gone.

Reason 2: Underlying Health Problems

Allergies and asthma are common causes of a cough. A cold can even cause an asthma attack. Some people learn they have asthma during a cold. Acid reflux can also cause a chronic cough. See your doctor for diagnosis and treatment if you have symptoms of acid reflux, such as frequent heartburn or an acidic taste in the back of your mouth.  Signs that may point to a more serious underlying condition are unintentional weight loss, coughing up blood, swelling of the legs, and difficulty breathing while lying flat.  When in doubt, it is best to get checked out!

Reason 3: Smoking

Smoking irritates the lining of the airways, eventually leading to conditions like chronic bronchitis and emphysema, collectively known as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).  Signs of COPD in current and former smokers include chronic cough, episodes of wheezing, and difficulty catching your breath.  The best way to stop this from worsening is to quit smoking.  Your primary care doctor can help you to quit for good!

Reason 4: Not Drinking Enough Fluids

When you have a cold or the flu, you need to drink a lot of fluids. Water, juice and soup can help loosen mucus in your airways so you can cough it up and out. Alcohol and drinks with caffeine in them are not helpful choices because they can dehydrate you. Another way to add moisture to your airways is by using a saline nasal spray or running a humidifier.

Reason 5: Overusing OTC Nasal Decongestant Spray

Over-the-counter (OTC) nasal decongestant sprays may help with a stuffy nose. Don't use them for more than three days, though. If you do, when you finally stop taking them, your symptoms may be worse -- a rebound effect. Those excess sprays make your nasal membranes swell, which triggers more congestion, postnasal drip and coughing.

Reason 7: Bacterial Infection

When your airways are raw and irritated after a cold, it's easier for bacteria to invade. Bacteria can cause sinus infections, bronchitis, and pneumonia. If your cold symptoms initially improve, then worsen again, persist beyond 10 days, or you develop a fever higher than 101 degrees, a bacterial infection could be the reason. See your doctor, as you may need further treatment.

Reason 8: Medications

Certain medications, called ACE inhibitors, can cause a dry, chronic cough. These medications are commonly used to treat high blood pressure, and their names usually end in –pril (lisinopril, enalapril, etc.).  The fix is a simple substitution with another type of medicine.

If your cough is severe or isn’t getting better after a week, call your doctor. Together, you can find out what’s causing your cough and make sure you get the right treatment.

Anne Valeri, DO, FAAFP
Associate Director, Family Medicine Residency
Summa Health System - Akron Campus

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