Woman coughing

Persistent Cough? When to Worry

posted in: Medical

Question: I have a friend who has been suffering with a cough for several months. Her doctor thinks it is a virus and hasn’t given her any medication because she is pregnant. But shouldn’t it have cleared up now? When is it time to worry about a cough?

Answer: Any cough that lasts longer than one month requires medical attention to diagnose its cause and commence treatment. While all infections viral or bacterial can last a bit longer in pregnancy, owing to an altered immune system, your friend’s hacking needs tackling.

Concerning Conditions or Symptoms

Coughs that don’t go away in a month are of particular concern if:

  • You have a known risk of lung disease, such as previous lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or are a past or current smoker
  • The cough is accompanied by a fever or shortness of breath.

In either of the above cases, see a doctor promptly.

Coloured Phlegm

You also should get immediate medical attention if you are producing yellowish, green or blood-tinged phlegm or sputum. Yellow or green sputum suggests a bacterial infection and requires a doctor’s care, which likely would include treatment with antibiotics. Blood-tinged sputum also requires urgent medical care, especially if you have chest pain.

Persistent Cough Causes

A variety of things can cause a cough that won’t go away. They include the backup of stomach acid into your esophagus (esophageal reflux), voice-box growths, allergies, asthma, and tuberculosis. Less typical causes include histoplasmosis and certain parasites or fungal infections.

By far the most common cause of coughing is a viral infection, when the cough usually happens as part of a cold. Young children can get 6-12 colds a year. The next most common cause of coughing is asthma.


In the case of a pregnant woman who has been suffering from a cough for several months (or anyone else, for that matter), I am concerned about the lack of a diagnosis. She should press her doctor to rule out treatable causes.

Treating Coughing Spells

As for treating the coughing spells in the meantime, humidified air is a harmless approach. But be careful not to introduce mould spores by keeping the device clean. If your friend has allergies (or suspects she might), it might be useful to run a high-quality air filter, too.

Throat lozenges, honey and lemon tea and, yes, chicken soup can relieve symptoms. But they are not a cure.

Anyone with a long-running cough needs to see a doctor. It’s just that simple.