Coughing for longer than a week can make a person concerned, and many people end up in their doctors’ offices, demanding for an antibiotic to fix the problem. The real problem, however, is that new studies show that coughing — that annoying symptom of the flu and other cold viruses — lasts a lot longer than people think it should. And since the flu vaccine is only about 60 percent effective against this season’s virus, chances are you’ll catch a sniffle or cough at some point this year.
Dr. Marl Ebell notices in his practice that patients were coming to him after coughing for about a week and asking for antibiotics. However, the doctor has this message for anyone experiencing hacking: Wait a little longer.
A new study shows that the duration of an average cough is about 18 days — and it could even be more than three weeks. Taking an antibiotic against this most annoying winter illness symptom is not only ineffective, maintains Ebell, but it can be harmful. The nation is experiencing a growing problem with bugs becoming resistant to drugs, often because of over- or misuse.
Ebell, an associate professor at the University of Georgia College of Public Health, sought to define the gap between public understanding of the common cough and the reality of its duration.
“A lot of times patients will come to me and they’ve been coughing for four or five days and they’re not getting any better, so they ask for an antibiotic,” he said. “After eight or nine days, they’re still not feeling better, so they ask for an even stronger antibiotic. Then they’ll say, ‘The only thing that really works for me is this really strong antibiotic.’”
In most of the 3 million outpatient cases in the US each year in which coughing is the main complaint, more than 4.5 million outpatient cases of bronchitis are viral, not bacterial. Only bacteria are killed by antibiotics.
But when Ebell surveyed nearly 500 Georgia residents by phone, he found that they predicted that a cough would last between five days and nine days but generally about a week.
A review of 19 published medical studies, however, revealed that the mean duration of any cough was 17.8 days, with a range of 15.3 to 28.6 days.
So, no matter how much “Flu Sorbet” or chicken noodle soup you eat, you’ll be hacking for at least two weeks. Bring on the cough drops and settle in for the long haul, and try to stay away from antibiotics unless needed.