The good news is, you’re feeling better after a bout with a cold, flu or pneumonia. The bad news is that your hacking cough just won’t go away. It may be even worse when you go to bed, making it difficult to sleep. After a few nights of trying to sleep sitting up, you know you need help.
Coughing is a very common reason people come to the doctor. In the U.S., it accounts for about 30 million office visits each year. If you’ve been coughing for less than three weeks, it’s considered an acute condition—and may clear up on its own. However, if your cough has lasted eight weeks or more, it’s considered chronic, and you should check it out with your doctor.
Possible Reasons for a Chronic Cough:
- Postnasal drip, seasonal allergies, sinusitis (inflammation of the nose, caused by a cold or an allergy) or vasomotor rhinitis (which may feel like an allergy, such as hay fever, but doesn’t involve the immune system) can contribute to a constant cough.
- Asthma is one of the most common reasons for a persistent cough in both children and adults. Usually, the cough is associated with shortness of breath and wheezing, but it doesn’t have to be. If you have a cough that isn’t related to a previous illness, you should see your doctor.
- GERD causes 30 – 40% of coughs people experience. GERD stands for gastroesophageal reflux disease, a condition in which the esophageal sphincter weakens, and food from your stomach backs up into your esophagus, causing heartburn, nausea, chest pain, painful swallowing or respiratory problems.
- Post upper respiratory tract infection coughing is very common. If you’ve recently recovered from illnesses like certain pneumonias, your cough may persist for more than two months.
- Airway diseases like bronchitis, bronchiectasis, lung abscess, lung disease and airway masses can result in chronic coughing.
- Certain medicines can contribute to a persistent cough. Patients on ACE inhibitors for hypertension can experience a dry cough as a side effect. Although it’s usually seen a week after starting the medicine, it can begin up to six months after treatment.
- Rarely, elderly or very ill people may cough because of problems swallowing.
Seeing Your Doctor for Your Cough
If you’ve had a cough that’s long lasting, talk with your doctor. They will ask if you’ve had any recent illnesses, if you smoke and what medicines you’re taking. Your responses and the exam will give your doctor a number of options to get more information and determine treatment.
Your physician may do a chest x-ray. They may also prescribe an antihistamine or decongestant for the cough. If that doesn’t help, they may use a spirometry, a simple test done in the office, in which you blow into a machine to measure your lung capacity.
If your symptoms point to GERD, your doctor may prescribe a proton pump inhibitor, which is a medicine that treats stomach acid.
Additional options include testing for a lung infection, such as eosinophilia, or consulting with a pulmonologist to determine the cause of the cough.
Your doctor will have a number of ways to find out why you’re still coughing and will help you resolve the problem, so you can get back to your life.
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