Don’t Dance Around a Persistent Cough

By Joyce Knestrick, PhD, APRN, CFNP, Fellow of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners

Many of my patients don’t know that in addition to being a family nurse practitioner, I’m also an avid ballroom dancer. And any experienced ballroom dancer knows the importance of a strong lead—so I always encourage my patients to follow my lead when it comes to treating a persistent cough.

In my practice in rural Appalachia, I see former coal miners who’ve been exposed to dust and other elements in the mines, folks who work with cars and paints every day in their jobs, and smokers and their families who are exposed to second-hand smoke. These environmental factors can sometimes result in a cough that just won’t seem to go away, which can be confused with a seasonal cough, especially around cold and flu season.

If you or a family member has ever had a cold or flu before, you’ve likely experienced a run-of-the-mill nasty cough—so you probably know that some coughs can be easily treated with an over-the-counter cough medicine like a suppressant or an expectorant. But I often remind my patients that a lingering cough may be a sign of an underlying condition that requires more attention. A chronic cough could be due to allergies, environmental exposure, or something more serious, so your healthcare provider will likely want to know more about your health history and determine whether some testing may be necessary.

As with ballroom dancing, the first steps you take with a cough are some of the most critical. Here are three initial steps to take toward treating your cough safely:

  • If you have other symptoms of a cold or allergies, your cough may be what we call “acute”—it’s common, doesn’t last long, and may be treated with over-the-counter cough medicines. Just remember to always read and follow the medicine label.
  • If your cough lasts more than a week or is accompanied by fever, rash, or a persistent headache, call your healthcare provider.
  • If you have a persistent cough due to smoking, asthma, chronic bronchitis, or emphysema, be sure to speak with a healthcare provider before taking a cough expectorant or suppressant.

If you’re not sure whether you’ve had a cough long enough for it to be considered chronic, it’s best to go in for an appointment anyway. I’d always rather a patient come in and have it be a minor issue, than have them not come in and it ends up being more serious. Remember—when in doubt, follow my lead!