Lingering Cough: What Does it Mean?   

Lingering Cough: What Does it Mean?

Older man coughing into his hand, managing a lingering cough.
Clinical Contributors to this story:
Emmet Fenichel, M.D.

Sometimes when you recover from an illness, your cough persists longer than other symptoms. Should you worry if a cough lingers for weeks after you otherwise feel better?

A cough is often the last symptom to disappear after respiratory illnesses, says family medicine doctor, Emmet Fenichel, M.D. However, if it doesn’t fade after a few weeks, you should see a doctor.

  • Adults should seek medical care if a cough persists for eight weeks or longer. 
  • For children, visit the pediatrician if a cough lingers for four or more weeks.

“Many times, a physician can confirm that the persistent cough is innocuous,” says Dr. Fenichel. “Other times, a lingering cough may need further evaluation.”

Common Reasons for a Lingering Cough

There are many reasons for a lingering cough. You may keep coughing for weeks if you’ve had an acute illness, such as:

  • A common cold
  • The flu (influenza)
  • COVID-19
  • Bronchitis
  • Sinusitis
  • Whooping cough (pertussis)
  • Pneumonia

Chronic conditions may also cause a lingering cough. Possibilities include:

  • Seasonal environmental allergies, including hay fever
  • Asthma
  • Acid reflux
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Postnasal drip
  • Emphysema
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Heart failure

Other reasons why you may have a lingering cough include:

  • Smoking, or exposure to second-hand smoke
  • Side effects of medications like ACE inhibitors, used to treat high blood pressure
  • Chronic exposure to dust, smoke, mold or cockroaches at home or at work
  • Lung cancer

“People worried about worst-case scenarios imagine that a lingering cough means lung cancer,” Dr. Fenichel says. “While this is one possibility, there are many other more likely causes.”

Effects of a Lingering Cough

A cough can be an annoying symptom of any illness. When a cough lingers, however, it may become even more intrusive.

Sometimes, a lingering cough may:

  • Cause chest pain
  • Wake you up at night
  • Make you feel lightheaded
  • Cause exhaustion
  • Prevent you from concentrating on your work
  • Lead to vomiting
  • Make it difficult to catch your breath
  • Lead to broken ribs

Occasionally, a lingering cough may have more serious symptoms, including:

  • Chest pain
  • Bloody mucus
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath

If worrisome symptoms accompany your cough, see a doctor well before eight weeks pass.

Diagnosing a Lingering Cough

The first step to finding relief from a lingering cough is getting assessed by your doctor. Doctors ask about your health history and symptoms so they can diagnose the problem.

Your doctor should listen to your lungs with a stethoscope as you breathe. Doctors may also diagnose your condition by offering:

  • X-rays
  • CT scan
  • Lung function tests
  • Laboratory assessment of mucus that is coughed up

“The medical history, physical exam and diagnostic tests enable doctors to diagnose the condition,” Dr. Fenichel says. “This ensures that patients receive treatments that are appropriate for the diagnosis.”

Ways to Help Ease a Lingering Cough

Once your doctor discovers the cause of your chronic cough, it may ease your mind. More often than not, the cough is easily treatable.

Doctors may treat a chronic cough with medications such as:

  • Dextromethorphan, an over-the-counter cough suppressant
  • Over-the-counter cough drops containing menthol, eucalyptus and other ingredients
  • Decongestants, to help thin mucus in the airways
  • Antihistamines, when someone has an allergic reaction
  • Asthma inhalers
  • A different medication to treat high blood pressure, if ACE inhibitors cause the cough

Other remedies may also help you recover from a lingering cough. Your doctor may suggest that you:

  • Stay well hydrated, so that mucus in your airways becomes easier to cough up
  • Suck on a hard candy, to minimize irritation by keeping your throat coated
  • Swallow a spoonful of honey, which may soothe a sore throat and cough
  • Inhale steam from a hot shower, or use a humidifier
  • Avoid smoking/vaping, and steer clear of smokers/vapers

Next Steps & Resources:

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.


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