It may seem like everyone you know is sick – with people calling out of work and friends canceling plans.
With the recent spikes in flu, Covid, and RSV as part of America’s tripledemic, more and more people have found themselves fighting a runny nose or sore throat.
For many, these symptoms are accompanied by a pesky cough that just won’t go away.
However, doctors have revealed what a cough actually means and tips for getting rid of it for good.
Dr Malathy Munisamy, a clinical research physician at MAC Clinical Research in the UK, said that while coughing can be annoying, it’s a normal defense mechanism.
‘A cough is simply the body’s natural response to any irritations within the airways,’ he said.
The US is in the midst of a surge in flu and cold cases. However, a pesky cough could be a sign of several different conditions, doctors warn
This could include germs, mucus, and dust, among other pollutants.
Dr Munisamy said: ‘Standard coughs, which are often “harmless,” settle on their own within a couple of weeks.’
However, those that linger could be a sign of a cold, the flu, or a serious infection like pneumonia.
While the average cough lasts for about 18 days following an infection, Dr Munisamy groups coughs into three categories based on how long they persist for: acute, sub-acute, and chronic.
An acute cough is one that’s lasted for less than three weeks. In many cases, this lingering cough could be due to a run-of-the-mill cold, case of the flu or post nasal drip caused by allergies or a virus.
Post-nasal drip is when excess mucus builds up in the back of the throat and drips down. This may make you feel a tickle in the back of your throat, cause frequent swallowing, hoarseness, nausea, and a constant urge to clear your throat.
It can also lead to a chronic cough.
Dr Munisamy recommends using a steroid-based nasal spray like Afrin or Flonase to ease inflammation in the nose and reduce mucus.
The color of your snot can give you a few hints as to why you have a runny nose. In some cases, for instance when it is clear, it is relatively harmless and usually caused by pollen allergies. If it is black, though, it could signal that you have been infected by a deadly fungus
He said: ‘As this cough is caused by a virus, rest, hydration, paracetamol, ibuprofen or cold relief medication are usually effective treatments.’
But steer clear of antibiotics in these cases: ‘If you are taking antibiotics for viruses, these will not work and could lead to bacterial antibiotic resistance.’
A cough lasting three to eight weeks is known as a sub-acute cough.
Dr Munisamy said this could be a sign of chest infections like bronchitis, whooping cough, or pneumonia.
Bronchitis is an infection of the large airways, also known as the bronchi, that travel between the windpipe and the smaller airways.
The Mayo Clinic states while the initial disease usually resolves within a week to 10 days, the cough could linger for several weeks and antibiotics are not usually recommended.
Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is a highly contagious infection characterized by a severe, hacking cough and is treated with a course of antibiotics. Doctors say it is very important to treat whooping cough early, before coughing begins, because delay in treatment will render it ineffective.
And pneumonia inflames the lungs’ air sacs, which could cause them to fill with fluid. Some forms of pneumonia can be treated with antibiotics, while some can be prevented through vaccinations.
Along with a cough that can produce phlegm – a type of mucus that comes from the lungs and the throat – symptoms include chest pain when you breathe or cough, confusion, fatigue, fever, chills, low body temperature, nausea, and shortness of breath.
The above shows the common symptoms (green check), occasional and possible symptoms (orange circle) and the symptoms that never occur (red cross) with the common cold, flu and Covid
Dr Munisamy said: ‘Chest infections can either be viral or bacterial, and each requires different treatment.
‘Either antiviral medication or an antibiotic can be prescribed alongside the usual advice of rest, paracetamol, and hydration.’
Treating all of these respiratory illnesses early can help reduce the chance of developing a persistent cough that lasts well after other symptoms subside.
The doctor also noted that a sub-acute cough could also be a sign of Covid-19. He said a hallmark of the Covid cough is one that’s new and continuous, meaning it’s lasted for more than an hour or you have three or more coughing episodes within 24 hours.
Treatments for Covid include many of the same as those for a cold and the flu, plus the medication Paxlovid, which can be prescribed by a doctor.
If you’ve been coughing for more than eight weeks, Dr Munisamy warns you could be suffering from a chronic cough, which could be a sign of a more serious condition.
One of these is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), an inflammatory lung disease that causes obstructed airflow.
According to the Mayo Clinic, this leads to difficulty breathing, as well as wheezing, chest tightness, frequent respiratory infections, lack of energy, unintended weight loss, and swelling in the ankles, feet, or legs.
Smoking is the most significant risk factor for COPD.
According to the World Health Organization, COPD is the sixth-leading cause of death across the world. It affects 16 million Americans.
There is currently no cure for this progressive illness, but there are lifestyle changes which can help ease symptoms and aim to prolong life expectancy,’ Dr Munisamy said.
‘These include stopping smoking, bronchodilators, inhaled corticosteroids, pulmonary rehabilitation, and oxygen therapy.’
He also points to idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) as a potential culprit for a chronic cough, which causes scarring of the lungs.
Though the condition is progressive, Dr Munisamy recommends using supplemental oxygen and, in extreme cases, lung transplantation to reduce symptoms.
A Chronic cough could also a sign of lung cancer, the deadliest form of cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI).
It accounts for one in five cancer deaths.
Standard lung cancer treatments include a combination of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery.
As a general rule of thumb, Dr Munisamy said if your cough has lasted any longer than three weeks, it’s time to see a doctor.
He added: ‘Any cough with associated worrying or severe symptoms such as coughing up blood, hoarseness of the voice, shortness of breath, fever, weight loss, trouble swallowing, or vomiting, should immediately be assessed by your doctor.’