There’s nothing fun about getting knocked down by a cold or flu. But recovering and still dealing with a nagging cough is especially frustrating. It’s hard to tell if you’re still sick or suddenly sick again. Either way, it doesn’t feel normal. We talked to medical experts to learn a bit more about why a cough may stick around and where to find relief.
What is causing my symptoms?
Inflammation is a natural process in our body that helps fight infection and repair injury. When you twist an ankle, it typically swells up and hurts; this is inflammation working to start the healing process. Head colds work the same way. “When we get a cold, which is caused by a virus that affects our upper airway (nose, throat), the body fights it off with inflammation, such as mucus production, which leads to congestion and a runny nose,” says Internist Dr. Matthew Mintz. “In some diseases, the body’s immune system doesn’t function correctly, leading to abnormal inflammation, i.e. rheumatoid arthritis. In general, though, inflammation is a good thing,” says Dr. Mintz.
So, it’s inflammation that’s behind all those annoying symptoms that tend to linger around for awhile! “When a virus attacks the lower respiratory tract (lungs), the airways in the lung get inflamed,” explains Dr. Mintz. “This leads to mucus production, as well as a tightening of the airways.” Both can lead to a cough, wheezing, and shortness of breath.
I feel better. Why do I still have a cough?
When you get a virus, you might only feel sick (and experience symptoms that include fever, congestion, and sore throat) for a few days, but if it travels to the lungs—causing inflammation to the small airways—you can get a persistent cough that can last for weeks or even months. “You are no longer contagious because the virus is gone, but you continue to have a cough because the inflammation in the lungs takes a while to clear,” says Dr. Mintz.
In fact, people who get this post-viral cough or post-inflammatory bronchospasm (constriction of the small airways) have lungs that are very similar to asthmatics, Dr. Mintz explains. The difference is that with patients who have a post-viral cough, the inflammation eventually goes away, whereas asthmatics always have inflammation.
What will help relieve a cough?
Asthma medications can often be very helpful. “I usually treat patients with an asthma inhaler that combines an inhaled corticosteroid and a long-acting bronchodilator,” says Dr. Mintz. Examples of this prescription medication include Advair, Breo, Symbicort, and Dulera. “I recommend that patients take this for at least four weeks, even if they feel better right away, which they usually do. This is because it takes a few weeks to really knock out the inflammation,” says Mintz.
You can also find relief over the counter. There are a number of products on the market designed to help soothe inflamed nasal passages. This should provide relief from difficult breathing overnight, too. Ask a pharmacist to help you choose a product that’s best for you.
A number of home remedies may work for your, as well. You can try stirring some honey or thyme into a glass of hot tea, for example. It’s also smart to stay hydrated and also keep moisture in the air via a humidifier. Dry air can continue to irritate the nasal passages and lungs.
Try to just relax. Stress has a huge impact on your immune system. “When you’re busy worrying about life and work and family, your body doesn’t have the resources it needs to fight off viruses—and it could keep you sick longer,” says Dr. Edison de Mello, M.D., Ph.D., board-certified integrative medicine physician and founder/medical director of both the Akasha Center in Santa Monica and ActivatedYou.
So, if you’re under the weather, start delegating. The more you take off your plate, the faster you may heal. If your symptoms are all above your neck (like a runny nose or a sore throat), consider gentle movement, like a walk in fresh air or yoga. “It could actually help—and tire you out so [that] you can rest better,” says Dr. de Mello. But, if you’ve got chest congestion, stomach issues, or a fever, just rest. “That means your immune system really needs time to recharge,” says Dr. de Mello.
It turns out that a post-viral cough is common, and many of us are going to have to deal with it, especially during cold and flu season. We know, that doesn’t make us feel better either—but at least we know that it’s normal. That cough will eventually go away; probably just in time for the next cold to start brewing.