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Coughs last longer than 2 weeks

WebMD UK Health News
Medically Reviewed by Dr Keith David Barnard
man coughing

15th January 2013 - If you have a cough and cold, how long should it last? The answer, according to a new study is around 18 days. Yet many people with a cough become concerned after about five to nine days, a new US study shows.

"Coughs last for longer than we think they do," says researcher Dr Mark Ebell, a family doctor at the University of Georgia in the US. "People think it should be over in a little over a week, but the reality is that a cough is more likely to last two weeks."

In the study, researchers asked 500 adults from the state of Georgia how long a cough should last in different situations, such as with a fever or without. They compared these answers to those found in the medical literature.

They found a big difference between how long people think a cough should last and how long it actually does. The findings appear in the January/ February issue of the Annals of Family Medicine.

Antibiotics don’t help most coughs

People in the study who had previously taken antibiotics for a cough were more likely to believe that antibiotics are always helpful for cough. However, antibiotics don’t treat viruses (the cause of most upper respiratory infections), and using them when they are not needed can lead to antibiotic resistance.

Although people who received antibiotics for a cough due to a virus may feel better after seven days, it is often just the cough getting better on its own. "People may think it worked, but it is really just the natural history," Dr Ebell says.

Still, there are some warning signs that a cough may be caused by something more serious than a virus. These include coughs accompanied by:

People who smoke, and those with chronic lung diseases such as asthma, should also take their coughs more seriously.

Longer term coughs

When defining longer term dry or chesty coughs, the NHS states that:

  • Acute coughs last for less than three weeks
  • Subacute coughs get better over three to eight weeks
  • Chronic or persistent coughs last for longer than eight weeks

Antibiotics don’t help acute coughs, and if you take them too frequently, they won’t work when you really need them.

Reviewed on January 15, 2013

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