How Long Can a Viral Cough Linger? | The Survival DoctorHow Long Can a Viral Cough Linger?

In a study published in The Annals of Family Medicine the researchers asked people how long a cough from a cold, the flu, or bronchitis should last. They also looked at studies on how long coughs actually do last and compared people’s expectations to reality.

The majority of people thought the cough should last anywhere from six to nine days. After that, the presumption was they needed to get to the doctor.

The real-life data, however, showed that an acute viral cough lasts an average of eighteen days. Sure, some coughs just last a few days, but others can last up to three weeks. Whether it was a dry cough or one with yellow or green sputum, the results were the same.

Article Contents

Is your cough from bacteria?
Antibiotics: benefits vs. harm
How long do coughs linger?
Signs you need antibiotics

The researchers concluded that doctors need to educate patients who come in about a lingering cough:

Patients should be told that it is normal to still be coughing 2 or even 3 weeks after onset, and that they should only seek care if they are worsening or if an alarm symptom, such as high fever, bloody or rusty sputum, or shortness of breath, occurs. Our survey confirmed that previous prescriptions of antibiotics increase the belief in their efficacy, creating the potential for a cycle of expectation and prescription.

Pneumonia and More: Reasons for Antibiotics

The second study was published in JAMA Internal Medicine. The researchers tried to give doctors an algorithm to help know when to prescribe antibiotics for respiratory infections.

For the purposes of this post—to help you consider antibiotics if you can’t get to a medical facility and have no access to X-rays—the gist is the reviewers first looked at the risk of pneumonia since it’s the most dangerous. Pneumonia can be viral, but I think most doctors would prescribe antibiotics in an emergency situation. (I have a post on pneumonia treatment here.)

The researchers found a 5-percent or greater risk of pneumonia if any of the following is true:

  • The doctor hears something on lung exam (see the next page).
  • There’s a fever, the pulse is above 100, and the flu isn’t going around.
  • There’s shortness of breath.

The only other time they recommend antibiotics is if you have facial or teeth pain and a nasty nasal discharge, and the symptoms have lasted over seven days. (Think bacterial sinus infection.)

>> Next: The bottom line: signs you need antibiotics


Photo by Angela Mabray on Flickr.