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Coughing is one of the most common symptoms of COVID-19, and for some people, a lingering cough can persist for months after infection. Studies show that as many as 5 percent of people infected with COVID have a cough lasting four or more weeks. Here’s what you need to know about an ongoing COVID cough.
“Coughing is a spontaneous reflex that helps protect your respiratory system from damage caused by irritants such as dust or germs,” said Evelyn Balogun, M.D., chief medical officer for Inspira Medical Group. “COVID-19 is a respiratory infection that affects the network of organs and tissues that help you breathe, so one of its primary symptoms is a dry cough.”
Your cough reflex is triggered when your nervous system senses a foreign substance in the respiratory system. When this occurs, your nervous system sends signals to your brain and diaphragm, causing it to contract. As the larynx closes, air pressure builds up in the lungs, and the abdominal muscles tighten. Once the larynx opens and you cough, air is released, clearing the irritants from your airway.
“It’s unclear why some people have post-COVID symptoms while others do not,” said Dr. Balogun. “A persistent cough may point to inflammation.” Inflammation, our immune system’s defensive response to infection, can continue long after germs are out of your system. Inflamed tissues produce fluid and swell up, which may lead to cough hypersensitivity.
Other symptoms, including fatigue and shortness of breath, may accompany a post-COVID cough in some cases. These coexisting conditions could indicate neuroinflammation. When the sensory nerves are inflamed, they can trigger the coughing reflex. If you experience a cough or shortness of breath that changes with your body position, such as when reclining or laying down, you should see your provider.
A cough can last for a while after any viral infection, and it does not necessarily mean you're contagious. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people with mild to moderate cases of COVID-19 are infectious for no more than 10 days after symptom onset. For people with more severe cases, this extends to 20 days. After the infectious period, you’re no longer contagious to others, even if you’re not in perfect health.
“A lingering cough doesn’t necessarily indicate long-term issues, and most coughs will subside with time,” said Dr. Balogun. “You can try to control your cough with over-the-counter cough medicine.” Staying hydrated will also help your body clear your airways and encourage healing.
If you have a lingering cough from COVID-19 and notice that it’s lasted longer than a month or is worsening, talk to your doctor. They can help you determine the best course of action.
Inspira Health is a high reliability organization (HRO), which means safety is the top priority for patients and staff. To make an appointment, call 1-800-INSPIRA.
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