How can I kill a cough that lingers for a month?
October 30, 2009 4:50 AM   Subscribe

Why do I always have a cough that lingers for about a month after I've had a cold, and how can I get rid of it?

For as long as I can remember, after I've had a cold, I still have a hacking cough for about a month afterward, which tends to finally go away abruptly. The cough is the only symptom that lingers after everything else goes away, and I feel fine otherwise. I've had asthma since I was a kid, which I'm assuming is the cause of (or at least a large contributor to) this problem.

This is a dry cough. I don't ever cough up any phlegm or anything like that. If it gets really bad, I can use my rescue inhaler and it will help me for a few minutes. Cough drops also help, but not a lot. The weird thing is that I never have any other real problems with my asthma besides this.

I've talked to multiple doctors about this and they have all kind of shrugged it off and implied that it's just something I have to deal with. While I can deal with it, it's just annoying to have to explain to people that this terrible hacking cough is just my asthma acting up and that I'm not contagious.

So has anyone else ever dealt with anything like this? Do you have any recommendations on how to kill this stupid cough without waiting a month?
posted by joshrholloway to Health & Fitness (25 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
If the doctors cant find anything wrong with you (re: chest xray, blood tests, etc) - I thought chronic bronchitis (they should be able to detect this) or hyper sensitivity to dust, pet dander, or mold.

Being asthmatic probably has something to do with it.

As a product of your asthma, you could naturally have a dry throat that is irritated at the slightest annoyance.

Do you drink much water -verse- sugary drinks?
posted by Aegean at 5:11 AM on October 30, 2009

I favorited this because I have a variant of the same damn general problem (in fact, I'm having it now!), and am curious as to the "how to stop it" aspect.

In my case, however, it usually isn't a dry cough, and is probably due to lingering post-nasal-drip that I can't shift. But it took me a while to realize that my nose was still "stuffy" -- because it was happening way deep in my sinuses and I didn't realize it. I've learned that my sinuses are sensitive to being dry, and after hitting them with decongestants they're a little out of wack and get too dried out and try to compensate, so sleeping with a humidifier and using a Neti Pot has helped....I mention this because maybe it isn't asthma-related?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:20 AM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

IANAD, I asked my doctor why I had this hacking cough after colds that seemed to linger on for far longer than expected. Since I have asthma he explained that the colds often cause an outburst. He also said that it's kind of pointless to put up with it, especially if it causes you to lose sleep when the short term use of a steroidal inhaler will fix you up. At least in my area he said that asthma sufferers had really been suffering this year as well.
posted by substrate at 5:20 AM on October 30, 2009

Another thing I just thought of is poor gum health which can lead to sinus infection / irritation and thus a drip, or cold-like symptoms.
posted by Aegean at 5:30 AM on October 30, 2009

This is probably a dumb question, but do you smoke?
posted by Who_Am_I at 6:03 AM on October 30, 2009

I wish I had a solution, but I don't, sorry, just some data points.

My younger sister and I grew up in a house with two chain-smoking parents, and lived there until our early twenties, but although we both had fairly serious pollen allergies as kids, we didn't have asthma and didn't have those hacking coughs after colds. We never started smoking, either.

But by the time both of us hit our thirties, we seemed to have very reactive lungs, with me displaying that same incredibly persistent post-cold hacking cough. We also developed strong dust allergies and asthmatic breathing patterns, to the point where I have to take significant breaks and warm showers to ease my lungs after doing something dusty like cleaning the garage.

My sister is even worse. She got her basement renovated this spring, but the dust kicked up enough of a reaction in her, leading to a couple of emergency room visits, that she had to move out of the house for over a month until the work was finished.

So I'd advise you to watch out for a chain reaction and extra sensitivity to allergens like dust. As far as treating things now, I found some relief from warm showers, but mostly, I just have to wait it out and apologize a lot to people for the coughing.
posted by maudlin at 6:16 AM on October 30, 2009

The current seasonal flu in my area (northeast) seems to be producing this effect pretty uniformly. At a dozen people I know who have had it other than myself have noted that the coughing lasts several weeks after the other symptoms abate. Not to dismiss your earlier experience, but it's happening to everyone around me right now. (Other symptoms, for reference, seem to be a) mild fever, at the onset; b) mild sore throat, at onset, goes away in a day or two; b) body aches and chills on and off for 4-5 days; c) crushing fatigue for 4-6 days; and for me and several others, a splitting headache for 2-3 days. Some people also report mild GI symptoms, also near the beginning, concurrent with the fever. But the signature symptom is a deep cough that comes in bursts, is worse at night, and which feels productive but never actually seems to bring much up (not a dry cough, but an unproductive deep one, frustrating as hell, and exhausting after a while). That scales back over the second week to a drier, still deep cough, but it keeps coming on (in my case, every few hours, worse at night). I am on day 10, and still coughing, but otherwise mostly better.

Some people I know have had this diagnosed as post-viral but bacterial bronchitis and been prescribed antibiotics for it; not sure if it's helped them much. It seems like it goes away slowly.

I've been comparing symptoms with students and colleagues since I got back to work (this thing cost me several days!). I find it remarkable that the progression of this illness is so consistent for all of us.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:19 AM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Don't have an answer, but this is what happens to me too. I don't have asthma, no allergies, I'm not (and have never been) particularly "sickly", but I do get the regular yearly 4-day cold and 1-month cough. Cough syrups don't help, and my mum tried all kinds of herbal remedies and natural medicines on me with no luck. It just goes away on its own. I'm very interested in whatever answers come up!
posted by gakiko at 6:23 AM on October 30, 2009

Exactly the same thing happened to me and my doctor explained that sometimes after an infection the very ends of the little tubes in the lungs remain infected or inflamed. Sometimes that goes away on its own, but antibiotics helped mine clear up faster.

Another data point: I got bronchitis once while living in a developing country and was given Cipro - an antibiotic which kills everything - and after a week the cough was completely gone, along with a variety of little rashes and itches. But probably not generally recommended if something milder is available.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 6:41 AM on October 30, 2009

Response by poster: More data:

- I don't smoke, neither does my spouse or anyone I am regularly in close contact with.

- We have two cats, but pet hair has never really been an asthma trigger for me.

- I thought I had the seasonal flu, but I went to the hospital and tested negative for it. So it was just a really bad bug.

Thanks for all the help so far, everyone!
posted by joshrholloway at 6:48 AM on October 30, 2009

IANAD, but I did study microbiology eons ago. This is my vague recollections of what happens: In some illnesses viruses infect the lining of your bronchial tubes (airways). Although your body has beaten the infection, it still has to deal with all these infected, dead cells. The coughing is due to these cells being irritating and then worked out of your lungs. Once the bronchial lining has been replaced, the coughing stops. With asthma, it's probably a lot worse!
posted by liss at 7:08 AM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

I get this too. Unfortunately, the only thing that I have found that helps is a short course of prednisone.
posted by free pie at 7:12 AM on October 30, 2009

I have this problem. Try gargling with salt water twice a day. It's folksy and I couldn't tell you why it helps, but it does.
posted by mmmbacon at 7:18 AM on October 30, 2009

I have this same thing, and I don't have asthma. Usually I just deal, but the worst was when I coughed so often and so hard, that I pulled a muscle. I told my doctor about it, and he said he could prescribe a cough suppressant and another drug to stop it. I think he gave me Singulair, which is something people take for allergies (which I don't really have), but is not a steroid like Benadryl. It helped a little bit. And, it might work better for you. So ask your doctor if she has heard of this use of allergy meds.

Ultimately, what helped the most was just not using my voice at all and resting a lot. It sucks.
posted by bluefly at 7:18 AM on October 30, 2009

I have this same thing and it's irritating as hell. I'm pretty sure, at least in my case, it's some sort of phlegm build up in the high part of the back of my throat situated in such a way that I can't expectorate it. I figured it was related to smoking, but I quit years ago and I still get it. I don't have allergies or asthma, doc didn't think it was a big deal, etc.

It's not a solution, but I might be able to offer you a band-aid: Chloraseptic. Because it's meant for sore throats, it has a kind of numbing effect that seems to reduce the urge to cough.

It only lasts for a little while, but it's better than nothing.
posted by quin at 8:16 AM on October 30, 2009

I have this same thing and it drives me nuts. I don't smoke, nor do I have asthma. My doc told me I have Reactive Airway Disorder and prescribed a course of Advair. I don't love using it, but it does help with the cough -- it keeps me from coughing all night long, coughing so hard my whole body hurts, etc.

I have found one other solution -- when I get a regular cold, just as it ends, if I feel even a minor coughing spell coming on, I use strong cough syrup for a few days. It seems as if I can stop it then, my lungs don't get so irritated that I need the Advair.
posted by BlahLaLa at 8:34 AM on October 30, 2009

Have you ever had X-rays of your lungs taken when you have this persistent cough? I have several times had similar symptoms before, and it turns out that one lobe of one of my lungs has a tendency to develop pneumonia. (That' it's a dry cough may rule this out, but a month of coughing is a really long time.)
posted by ocherdraco at 9:01 AM on October 30, 2009

All of these answers are n=1 personal experience. Take them all with a grain of salt, as this as well: post-viral cough syndrome or asthma/reactive airway disease.
posted by gramcracker at 9:24 AM on October 30, 2009

What a relief to discover I'm not the only one who exhibits this! I had asthma growing up, but thought I had grown out of it, until I began to notice that I'd almost always develop bronchitis after a cold, and the whole recovery process was at least a month of seemingly worthless coughing.

Like Maudlin, steam from hot showers work the best for me, and wearing a surgical mask that helps me inhale moist air from exhalation. I'm convinced that keeping your lungs 'lubricated' by humidity helps the most, and that the dry air from the onset of winter is what extends the irritation and prolongs the cough.
posted by liquoredonlife at 9:52 AM on October 30, 2009

I suffer the exact same lingering dry cough with no other symptoms after a cold. In my case, my doctor has diagnosed it as asthma that is completely a-symptomatic when I am healthy, and is triggered by sickness.

I find that allowing the cough to proceed unchecked causes a cycle of inflammation that prolongs the length of my cough. If I am pro-active about using anti-histamines, cough syrup, my inhaler, taking lots of long steamy showers, drinking lots of tea, etc, I can cut the time that the cough stays with me by a lot.
posted by no1hatchling at 10:01 AM on October 30, 2009

Same problem here. I sound like an 80-year-old pack-a-day smoker. I get a cold and I cough, which irritates my lungs, so I cough, so I irritate my lungs... My doctor gave me an inhaler to take when I start to get a cough, which is supposed to head off the coughing / irritation cycle. (I haven't had a cold since I got the inhaler, so I can't tell you if this method works.)
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:13 PM on October 30, 2009

Sip water constantly. So obvious but works for me.
posted by Muirwylde at 3:28 PM on October 30, 2009

I've had a similar problem (a cough that made a fellow teacher wander by at one point and mildly observe "Tuberculosis kills, y'know." Not TB, but has that same kind of "I'm going to be dying soon" sound to it. And it'd linger for months after a cold.

What's worked for me is working with a local herbalist. I'm hesitant to name the actual herb we use for this, because good herbal practice depends on a lot of highly personal factors - what works for me might not be the right thing for you. I've found her absolutely fantastic for dealing low-grade but really annoying things that mainstream medicine either doesn't have a good way to treat (like this one) or where the treatments have side effects that make long-term quality of life differences for me. (I do still see my regular doc as needed, of course: modern medicine is really good at some things, and preventative care lab tests are one of them.)

After 2 years of working with her, I've had the best fall allergy season ever as far as asthma (usually my worst season, and this year I had one bad weekend, and a few bits of lingering ick, but nothing like the 6 weeks of misery and regular inhaler use I had before.)

As far as finding one: check with local co-ops or health food stores and see if they have any referrals. Beyond that, ask about their background and training, and since herbalism is a skill that gets a hugely better with lots of practice, aim for someone who's been doing it for a while (at least 3-5 years), or who had a substantial internship with someone who has.
posted by modernhypatia at 4:34 PM on October 30, 2009

IANAD, but to add a data point, I had something similar that carried on for a fucking year or so, and started right after a flu. I didn't smoke then. Cough suppressants and other remedies (drops, syrups, etc.) worked only so much. In the end, it was a throat infection and it was over after a throat swab and a short cycle of specific antibiotics.
posted by _dario at 5:30 PM on October 30, 2009

Sometimes the coughing irritates your lungs which leads to more coughing. Try a cough suppressant for a few days and see if that helps.
posted by kathrineg at 8:32 PM on October 30, 2009

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