What to do if you have a cough that won't go away

Here's how to respond to a lingering cough and when to see a doctor.

January 18, 2024, 9:51 AM

As many as 30 million people see a doctor each year due to a cough, according to statistics from the National Library of Medicine.

If you're one of the many this winter who either has a lingering cough or knows someone who has one, emergency medicine physician and ABC News medical correspondent Dr. Darien Sutton has the tips you need to get on the road to a full recovery or know when to seek medical help.

I think I'm over a cold or flu but I'm still coughing. What is going on?

Even though someone may be in the tail end of a cold or flu infection, the airways may still be irritated, leading to a lingering cough.

A general practitioner examines a coughing patient in this undated stock photo.
STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images

"We have small air sacs in our lungs. They help exchange oxygen to our blood so that we can get the air that we need but during this cough season, you have a buildup of mucus and irritants and that stimulates what we have, cough receptors in our chest and that causes the cough reflex," Sutton explained on "Good Morning America" Thursday.

In addition, multiple factors can lead to the development of mucus.

"Many things can cause that buildup of mucus. Common things being viral illnesses but also acid reflux, allergies, asthma, things of that sort can all increase your buildup of mucus, so it's about figuring out what's the cause," Sutton continued.

How long does a cough typically last? Some people have been dealing with coughs that last for weeks on end. Is this normal?

Different types of infections and illnesses can trigger a cough so it may be necessary to see a doctor to rule out what is or isn't a cause.

"A lot of the causes are the viral illnesses that we're seeing. We're seeing increases in flu, RSV and COVID," Sutton said.

With a virus, Sutton said the main period of symptoms typically lasts for three weeks.

"That's the typical time where you're going to have that cough," Sutton explained.

"After that, the three to six-week mark, that's what we call subacute," he continued. "That's the time when we're a little bit more investigative. We're doing imaging, we're trying to figure out what else could also be the cause, but it can also be something called post infectious, which is just your lungs healing."

If you have had a cough for two months, Sutton said that's when you should see a medical provider and will likely get tests and imaging to determine why you have a chronic cough.

"After eight weeks, that's something called chronic cough and that's what needs an additional workup, including imaging and sputum testing and just trying to figure out exactly what could be the cause," Sutton said.

What are some things I can do to take care of a cough and get rid of it as fast as possible?

When you're at home, there are simple remedies you can turn to in the kitchen to feel better more quickly.

"We all have been taught from a young age that soups and broths are helpful from our parents, our grandparents. It's true. It's absolutely true," Sutton said.

"You have your teas, your honey, even eucalyptus oil. If you put it in warm water, it smells fantastic or you put it in your vaporizer, a few drops to help clear your airway. It can be an anti-inflammatory," Sutton added.

While doctors say honey is a common and helpful remedy for a cough, it is not safe for children less than a year old.

When it comes to kids, doctors say parents should talk to their child's pediatrician about what to do for their child's specific symptoms and before giving them any over-the-counter medications to make sure it's the right option or dose.

At what point should I go see a doctor about a cough?

"Many patients have that question. They come in and their cough is sometimes lasting more than four or five weeks, which is definitely a concern and should be worked up," Sutton said.

In general, Sutton recommends seeing a physician when a cough has lasted for at least three weeks.

"After three weeks, you should get an exam. You should get some type of imaging and then after that, that dictates what the intervention is," Sutton recommended. "Some people find benefit in over-the-counter medications. These medications, although they may help your symptoms, they're not going to change your outcome. And so you might need additional interventions like steroids or albuterol inhalers and that only comes after a formal exam and a workup."