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When your persistent cough could be something more

It could be a medical problem

This article was last updated on May 20, 2020. 

An occasional cough is normal — it helps clear irritants and secretions from your lungs and prevents infection. However, a cough that persists for weeks is usually the result of a medical problem.

When you experience a persistent cough, it is more than a minor annoyance. In fact, it can leave you exhausted. It may keep you from sleeping, cause headaches, or in some cases, make you vomit or cause rib fractures.

Coughing is seen in many medical conditions, so it can be difficult to pinpoint the trigger. The most common causes of cough for nonsmokers are postnasal drip, asthma and gastroesophageal reflex disease (GERD), also known as acid reflux.

“Chronic cough is typically not serious,” says Dr. Barb Muller, allergist-immunologist, and medical director at Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield. “Fortunately, chronic cough typically disappears once the underlying problem is treated.”

Should you go to the doctor or wait it out?

“See your doctor if you have a cough that lingers for weeks, especially if it brings up blood, excessive mucus, or affects sleep, school or work,” says Muller.

To get the right diagnosis and treatment, Muller suggests you take note of how long your cough has lasted, the type and features of the cough you are experiencing, plus any other health symptoms you’ve noticed.

Talk to your doctor if you’re experiencing other symptoms External Site, like:

  • Fever, especially if it's high or prolonged
  • Excessive mucus production
  • Coughing up blood
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weight loss
  • Weakness, fatigue, loss of appetite
  • Chest pain that's not caused by the cough itself
  • Night sweats
  • Wheezing

Worried your persistent cough might be due to the coronavirus?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has listed a cough as a symptom of COVID-19 External Site — mores specifically, a dry cough. A dry cough is one that does not produce mucus and usually starts at the back of the throat External Site. It might produce a barking or coarse sound. If you have a dry cough, along with other symptoms like a fever, shortness of breath or muscle pain, stay home External Site, take care of yourself and stay in touch with your doctor. 

One common cause of chronic coughing is COPD

Across the United States, 12 million people have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, also known as COPD. COPD is a lung disease that makes breathing difficult External Site. Smoking is the most common cause of COPD, accounting for as many as 9 out of 10 COPD-related deaths. However, as many as 1 out of 6 people who have COPD never smoked. It’s estimated that 21 million additional people in the U.S. have COPD but don’t know it.

There are two main types of COPD:

  • Chronic bronchitis is a long term-cough with mucus, caused by the inflammation of the bronchial tubes.
  • Emphysema is the thinning and destruction of air sacs in the lungs, making breathing more and more difficult.

People who have COPD:

  • Become short of breath while doing everyday activities they used to do with ease
  • Produce too much mucus
  • Cough frequently, or constantly
  • Wheeze
  • Feel like they can’t breathe
  • Are unable to take a deep breath
  • May be at a greater risk of heart failure External Site

“As we get older, it’s tempting to think the symptoms of COPD are a normal part of the aging process. That’s simply not the case,” says Dr. Muller. “As time goes by, these symptoms gradually become worse, and can make it difficult to do the most basic tasks. That’s why it’s so important to see your doctor if you experience these problems.”

Relieve your symptoms with deep breathing exercises

Certain breathing exercises can help External Site people who have chronic lung diseases like COPD or asthma. These techniques are also helpful for people with anxiety or if you simply want to calm your thoughts and emotions:

  • Diaphragmatic. Inhale through the nose, letting your belly fill with air. Exhale through the mouth, at least twice as long as it took to inhale. Repeat for five minutes, three or four times a day.
  • Pursed lip. Inhale through the nose, exhale at least twice as long through the mouth, with lips pursed. This technique is especially effective for people with COPD and asthma.
  • Equal breathing. Inhale through the nose for five seconds, then exhale through the nose for five seconds. As you continue this progression, increase the number of seconds according to your comfort level.

Have a cough you can't figure out?

Call BeWell 24/7SM at Eight, Four, Four, Eight, Four, Be Well to get around-the-clock assistance from a health professional who can help you understand your health problems and figure out what you should do next.

A chronic cough turned out to be lifesaving for one Wellmark member

Gail Orcutt of Altoona, Iowa, was diagnosed with radon-induced lung cancer after suffering from an annoying, persistent cough and wheeze.

"At my first appointment, the provider I saw gave me a breathing treatment and some kind of asthma medicine. However, I continued to have symptoms, so I made another appointment to see my primary doctor. He ordered tests that led to my diagnosis and saved my life. My advice is, if you continue to have symptoms after treatment, be persistent. If you don't see improvement, see your doctor again," said Orcutt.

To read the rest of Gail's story, check out the article, Why (and how) you should test your home for radon.