Dr. Jacqueline Gerhart: Cough can linger even after cold is gone

UW Health Family Medicine physician Dr. Jacqueline GerhartMadison, Wisconsin - UW Health Family Medicine physician Jacqueline Gerhart writes a column that appears Tuesdays on madison.com and in the Wisconsin State Journal. Columns are re-published here with permission.

Weeks after a cold is gone, I'm still stuck with a bad cough. What gives? Is there any way I can prevent that cough or at least shorten it?

Sometimes it feels like the symptoms of a cold will never go away. 


Often in clinical practice, we will tell patients to come to the clinic to get examined if their symptoms are not improving after one week to 10 days. In many cases, patients do feel that their symptoms are improved within that time period, but not completely resolved. Often, one of the last symptoms to go away is the cough. 


It is important to distinguish between a lingering cough from a prior viral infection, and a new cough that could be more serious.


The common cold can be caused by one of many viruses, and so a person's symptoms may vary. Some people may not have a cough at all, or may first develop a cough near the end of the illness. Usually, when the cough lingers, it is related to "post nasal drip." After a cold, the body is still trying to clear some of the mucous from your nasal passages. When this mucous drips down the back of your throat from your nose and sinuses, it often triggers a cough.


It is often difficult to prevent post-nasal drip. Preventing the cold in the first place is the best way to prevent it. However, this is often impossible given the frequent contact we have with others. The next best way is to try to get the mucous to run out of your nose rather than back to your throat. Using a neti pot, or a saline sinus rinse helps to thin the mucous, and allow it to drain out the front of the nose. Blowing your nose after this helps to clear more mucous out. Some people notice that over-the-counter decongestants also help to thin the mucous, and allow for better drainage. If the cough is waking you from sleep, or severely disrupting your work, call your primary care provider for further discussion of cough suppressant options.


Typically a cough associated with a cold will subside within one month. You should notice that it is slowly improving over time. If you notice that it is not decreasing, you may have other reasons for coughing. One common cause of cough is "heartburn" or gastric reflux. This sometimes can cause a sour or bitter taste in the back of your mouth, and can induce coughing. Also, if you notice any wheezing, or decreased tolerance of activity, you could have symptoms of asthma. Finally, if you are a smoker with a chronic cough, or if your cough has blood, you should be seen.


This column provides general health information and is not specific advice intended for any particular individual(s). It is not a professional medical opinion or a diagnosis. Always consult your personal health care provider about your concerns. No ongoing relationship of any sort (including but not limited to any form of professional relationship) is implied or offered by Dr. Gerhart to people submitting questions.


Date Published: 10/18/2011

News tag(s):  jacqueline l gerhart

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