Each winter, so many of us seem to get stuck with the season’s in vogue virus. We sniffle, we sneeze, we cough—and then we keep on coughing, long past the exit of every other symptom.
Ranging from mildly annoying to downright embarrassing, a cough that won’t quit is, at the very least, a reminder that your system is still fighting to get back to complete normalcy. But why does it linger for what feels like eternity? We did some sleuthing to solve the mystery—and find out how to finally give it the boot.
- ABOUT OUR EXPERT: Dr. Gregory Smith, M.D., is an attending physician of otolaryngology and head and neck surgery at NJ ENT. Dr. Nazlie Latefi, Ph.D., is a molecular biologist and pulmonary disease researcher, and the creator of Biovanta.
Why Coughs Linger
Coughs are actually one of your body’s primary defense mechanisms. “Typically, a cough is present to clear from the airway any material which may affect the ability of the lungs to receive adequate air,” explains Dr. Gregory Smith, M.D., attending physician of otolaryngology and head and neck surgery at NJ ENT. “When thickened mucous or secretions from the lungs accumulate during a viral illness, a cough helps us expel them to keep the airways free for air exchange.”
Unfortunately, sometimes, a cough can go past this call of duty. Smith says this may happen because of irritation from post-nasal drip or continued sinus drainage from a low-grade sinus infection. A viral illness may even trigger a reactive airway condition like asthma. Some people also end up with a bacterial infection in the lungs (i.e. pneumonia) post-virus that causes a deep cough that won’t budge, he says.
On top of that, a not-so-lucky few of us may be physically predisposed to experience lingering coughs. “Some patients may have a preexisting irritation near the cough sensors in the voice box from reflux (laryngopharyngeal reflux), which may make a cough linger longer if irritated by the viral infection,” Smith says.
On the other hand, some coughs may have more of a connection to our nervous system than our respiratory system. “One reason a cough may linger is that once the autonomic neuronal pathways are triggered, the neurons may become hyperexcitable and resist shutting down,” says molecular biologist and pulmonary disease researcher Dr. Nazlie Latefi, Ph.D., creator of Biovanta. In other words, your nervous system can continue to think you need to cough, even after you’ve cleared the illness. “This is more likely to happen the longer a cough lasts, so it’s best to treat the inflammation as soon as possible,” Latefi adds.
How to Shake a Lingering Cough
Want to get control of a cough before it hitches a ride on your respiratory tract for months at a time? Here’s how to attack the hack.
It may be old-school advice, but simply drinking more water can make a difference to that tickle in your throat. If you’ve got a cough, both Latefi and Smith recommend increasing your fluid intake to maintain moisture within your airways. Need evidence? A 2022 study on teens with asthma found that their hydration status was directly correlated with the incidence and duration of coughing episodes. If you struggle to get enough H2O in, consider adding a hydration powder that supplies important electrolytes and flavor to your bottle.
2. Turn Up the Steam
Speaking of old-school, steam methods are another low-tech approach that may get results. Smith says humidifiers and cool steam devices can both provide some relief. For best results, don’t run a humidifier all day, every day; doing so can actually create too moist an environment in your home. Instead, stick to using one in the bedroom and turn it on only at select times, such as when you’re sleeping, she suggests.
3 Irrigate Your Sinuses
Maybe this is the year you finally jump on the neti pot train. Sinus irrigation is worth it if it helps relieve a never-ending cough—and it just might do the trick. “Nasal saline irrigation can be helpful if a sinus component is present to assist in drainage of the sinuses,” Smith says. That’s right, research confirms that nasal irrigation can remove infectious material from the sinuses and reduce cough. Check out our guide to neti pot usage.
4. Swallow a Spoonful of Honey
Call us Mary Poppins, but just a spoonful of sugar (at least when it’s honey) not only makes the medicine go down—but it is the medicine. Honey has long been known as an effective aid for those battling a cough—and studies confirm the potency of this ancient remedy! In fact, one 2021 systematic review and meta-analysis concluded that honey helped people reduce both cough frequency and severity.
5. Remove Potential Cough Triggers
Could something in your home be encouraging your cough to stick around? Latefi says everyday fragrances or spices may be irritating, keeping you stuck in the cough reflex cycle. These may include perfumes, candles, wall plug-ins, or even spices in your pantry, like red or black pepper. Take a lap around your home to identify any potential cough triggers. (If you smell something and start coughing, that’s all you need to know.) Keep these items out of smelling range for the time being to give yourself a break.
6. Consider a Supplement
There’s no shortage of supplements that can support respiratory health in general (and possibly help put a cough to a much-needed end). Vitamin C, for example, has been linked with better lung health. Meanwhile, several studies have shown that elderberry could minimize the duration of the common sniffle. Plus, some research has linked chronic coughs with vitamin D deficiency. Talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian if you’re struggling to kick a cough and could use some natural support.
According to Latefi, the right lozenge could be helpful, too. “But make sure it’s sugar-free and has proven beneficial ingredients; most lozenges are just hard candy and sugar is inflammatory.” Citrus extracts, elderberry, and honey are all helpful for a body dealing with illness and inflammation, so look for those on the packaging of any potential product picks. A couple of options that are low in sugar but loaded with the good stuff: Nature’s Way Organic Elderberry Zinc Lozenges and Manuka Health Manuka Honey Lozenges with Ginger and Lemon.
7. Turn To an OTC Med
When your immune system can’t kick a cough on its own, you may need to call in some extra oomph. “Sometimes over-the-counter treatments can be implemented to assist with the common causes [of lingering cough],” says Smith. “For example, allergy medications such as antihistamines and nasal steroids can help if post-nasal drip or asthma flare-ups are common after viral infections.”
When to See a Doctor
If you’ve been coughing for weeks (ugh) and nothing’s taming the Wheeze Beast, it’s probably time to visit your doctor. “People should start to seek medical attention for a prolonged cough when the symptoms exist for more than two to three weeks,” Smith advises. Any other concerning signs, such as thick, discolored productive sputum (a.k.a. the stuff you cough out), fevers, bloody sputum, significant shortness of breath, severe sinus facial pressure, or wheezing, warrant seeking medical attention.
You’ll likely feel better just knowing you’re in the capable hands of your healthcare provider. “Coughing sometimes necessitates a multidisciplinary approach of physicians to improve, including primary providers, allergists, pulmonologists, gastroenterologists, and otolaryngologists,” says Smith. So don’t delay if you’re concerned!