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8 Reasons Your Cough Is Not Improving

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WebMD Feature

Are you fed up with your stubborn cough? There are many reasons why a cough may not improve, and that can be frustrating for people and their doctors alike.

Reason 1: Irritated Airways After a Cold or Flu

The most common cause of chronic cough is predictable. It's the aftermath of a cold or other viral infection, says Norman H. Edelman, MD, chief medical officer of the American Lung Association. Most cold symptoms may go away after a few days. Your cough, though, can hang around for weeks, sometimes for months, because viruses can cause your airways to become swollen and oversensitive. This can last long after the virus is gone.

Reason 2: Underlying Health Problems

Allergies and asthma are common causes of a cough. A cold can even cause an asthma attack. Some people learn they have asthma during a cold.

Acid reflux and obstructive sleep apnea can also cause a chronic cough. Fortunately, these conditions are treatable. See your doctor for diagnosis and treatment if you have symptoms of acid reflux, including:

  • Burping
  • Heartburn
  • Ongoing cough
  • Regurgitation

Also see your doctor if you have symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea, such as:

  • Insomnia
  • Loud snoring
  • Nighttime choking or gasping
  • Repeated awakenings
  • Sleepiness during the day

Reason 3: Stress

Stress, especially when it's chronic, can make colds last longer. To beat back a lingering cough, slow down and ease stress while you're sick. Pushing yourself too hard might just make you sicker. One way to relax is to rest more: Aim for 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night.

Reason 4: Not Drinking Enough Fluids

When you have a cold or the flu, you need to drink a lot of fluids. Water, juice, and soup can help loosen mucus in your airways so you can cough it up and out. Alcohol and drinks with caffeine in them are not helpful choices because they can dehydrate you -- the opposite of what you need when you're sick. Another way to add moisture to your airways is by using a saline nasal spray.

Reason 5: Overusing OTC Nasal Decongestant Spray

Over-the-counter (OTC) nasal decongestant sprays may help with a stuffy or runny nose. Don't use them for more than 3 days, though. If you do, when you finally stop taking them, your symptoms may be worse -- a rebound effect. Those excess sprays make your nasal membranes swell, which triggers more congestion, postnasal drip, and coughing.

Reason 6: Air That's Too Dry or Too Moist

"Dry air -- especially common in the winter -- can irritate a cough," Edelman says. On the other hand, cranking up the humidifier too high isn't helpful, either. Moist air can be a trigger for asthma and encourage the growth of dust mites and mold, allergens that may start you hacking.

"People should aim for humidity levels of 40% to 50% in their homes, winter and summer," Edelman says.

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