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Cold, Flu, & Cough Health Center

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Time, Not Antibiotics, Best Rx for Chest Cold

Study: Antibiotics Don't Help Cough With Ugly Phlegm in People Without Lung Disease

Chest Colds Linger Longer continued...

For example, Ebell notes, doctors generally thought the cough from a chest cold lasted about a week. Surprisingly, Little's team finds that these coughs last for about three weeks -- and often last a month. And it's also a surprise to many doctors that antibiotics really don't help otherwise healthy patients with chest colds.

"I hope this will educate doctors about the limits of antibiotics for treating cough," Ebell tells WebMD. "It is very hard for doctors to learn the limits of their own informal observations in practice and to lean that sometimes the studies are right and they are wrong."

What About Children?

It's one thing to accept the news that antibiotics won't help our own chest colds. But won't they at least help our coughing kids?

No, Little and colleagues find. The otherwise healthy children enrolled in their study did the same as adults.

That confirms what some pediatricians already suspected, says Michael J. Light, MD, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics' pulmonology section and professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of Miami in Florida.

"The majority of kids don't need antibiotics unless they have a definite pneumonia," Light tells WebMD. "Lower respiratory infections in kids are common and they go on for a long time. We pediatricians take notice of coughs that go on beyond five or seven days, and those are the ones we tend to treat with antibiotics. But this study clearly shows that probably isn't the right approach. Waiting it out is correct."

Despite this reassurance, Light says parents should be aware of signs that children need help right away.

"If a cough lasts for more than several days, it is not an unreasonable thing to see the doctor," Light says. "If children have a fever that persists, if they seem to be breathing significantly faster than usual, this needs to be checked out."

A child that has difficulty breathing and begins to turn blue should immediately be taken to an emergency room.

Danger Signs

Sometimes you really do need to see a doctor for a bad cough. It could be pneumonia. Signs of pneumonia are:

  • Shortness of breath
  • High fever
  • Rapid breathing
  • Coughing rusty-colored or bloody sputum
  • Feeling very weak or tired

If you have any of these symptoms, it's a good idea to see a doctor.

"Basically, any time someone is worried we want them to come in," Ebell says. "There are other reasons to worry about a cough besides chest colds. Coughs can be caused by acid reflux, allergies, sinus infections, asthma, and other things we can treat. Any cough lasting more than two weeks should be evaluated by a doctor unless it is definitely getting better and almost gone."

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