Most cold symptoms disappear in seven to 10 days, but research shows that the average cold victim is still coughing on day 18. “A cough can linger longer than other symptoms because the immune system is still trying to get the airways back to normal,” says Nicole M. Tyer, M.D., internal medicine specialist at Cedars Sinai Medical Group in Los Angeles.
As your congestion clears up, postnasal drip can also trigger a cough. It may seem to go on forever, but the hacking will eventually stop—if it lasts more than two months, call your doctor, as this could signal something else such as allergies, asthma, or gastric reflux. (You should also talk to your doc if you experience any symptoms of COVID-19 in addition to your cough, to be on the safe side.)
Here’s how to curb a cough early, or ease it once it has taken hold.
How to prevent a lingering cough
✔️ Protect yourself.
The easiest way to ward off a lingering cough is to avoid getting sick in the first place. Be vigilant about washing your hands after being out in public, touching common surfaces, or being around ill people. If you do feel symptoms creeping up, try zinc or elderberry; studies suggest that both may shorten a cold when taken at the first sign of symptoms.
✔️ Rest up
Sleep is when your body naturally repairs itself, and when you’re sick, it gives your immune system time to fight. “Resting can help reduce the overall duration of symptoms,” says Dr. Tyer. If your cough keeps you awake, prop your head up about 15 degrees with extra pillows; this helps open up air passages so you can breathe more easily and may prevent mucus buildup in your throat.
✔️ Be mindful of your air.
When you’re hacking away, avoid irritants that can worsen your cough or make it linger longer. Steer clear of smoke, perfume, and anything you’re allergic to. Air purifiers can remove dust, dander, and other particles that may tickle your throat. Heaters dry air out, which can irritate a cough, so a humidifier can help by adding back moisture.
How to get rid of a lingering cough
✔️ Enjoy some honey.
Warm tea with honey can calm a scratchy throat; the hot liquid breaks up mucus in the chest and sinuses, and honey has natural antibacterial properties that may help fight the infection. A spoonful of honey may ease a cough on its own—one study found that in children 2 and older, it can be as effective as dextromethorphan, one of the main ingredients in OTC cough suppressants.
✔️ Try a steam facial.
There’s a reason a piping hot shower feels so nice when you’re sick—hot, humid air helps clear up cough-inducing mucus and moisturizes nasal passages and airways for easier breathing. Eucalyptus has antiviral and antimicrobial properties that can give steam a boost, so add leaves or a few drops of essential oil to boiling water, then inhale deeply.
✔️ Get some meds.
When you really can’t stop coughing, try OTC medications with antitussives (cough suppressants) and expectorants (mucus thinners); if they don’t help, your doctor can prescribe something stronger. You should only use over-the-counter cold medicines for one week. After that, these meds become less effective, so it’s better to suck on a lozenge to soothe your itchy throat.
Neti pots and sinus rinses can get rid of excess mucus, but use only once a day so as not to remove too much snot (which has infection-fighting white blood cells) and dry things out.
This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of Prevention.
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