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Average cough lasts 18 days, study finds

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One week living with a hacking cough seems like forever, but experts say you'll likely have to wait even longer for it to clear up.

According to a new study, the average cough — commonly the result of a cold or other respiratory illness — lasts nearly 18 days.

However, the study also reported that people expect their cough to go away much sooner than 18 days. People surveyed as part of a poll for the study said they expected their cough to last about six to nine days. [See Colds, Allergies or Sinusitis? Here's How You Can Tell.]

This mismatch between expectations and reality may mean that people seek medical care for a cough sooner than they should, and receive unnecessary treatment, the researchers said.

If patients expect  a cough to last about six or seven days, it makes sense that they would seek care earlier than needed, the researchers wrote in the January/February issue of the journal Annals of Family Medicine.

About 50 percent of people who seek medical treatment  for an acute cough will be given antibiotics, even though most of these illnesses are caused by a virus, which does not respond to the drugs.

Providing patients with information about exactly how long their cough should last may reduce the unnecessary use of antibiotics, the researchers noted.

"We need to educate patients that an acute [cough] in an otherwise healthy adult is usually viral, does not require antibiotics, and may easily last a couple of weeks," said study researcher Dr. Mark Ebell, of the University of Georgia Health Science Campus in Athens.

Patients don't need to go to the doctor simply because their cough has lasted a week or more, Ebell said. Reasons to seek care earlier than a few weeks include: having chronic lung disease or another serious chronic illness; shortness of breath or significant wheezing; coughing up blood or rusty sputum; or a sudden worsening of symptoms, Ebell said.

The researchers reviewed information from 19 previous studies, conducted between 1976 and 2010, which examined cough duration in adults. Those with a serious chronic respiratory illness, or those whose coughing was caused by pneumonia, tuberculosis, asthma, allergies or sinusitis, were excluded from the studies.

The poll was a phone survey of about 500 adults in Georgia.

 

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