Can’t Get Rid of Your Cough? When (and When Not) to Worry

tissue box, thermometer, and flu medication
Dr. Sharon Orrange
Dr. Orrange is an Associate Professor of Clinical Medicine in the Division of Geriatric, Hospitalist and General Internal Medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.
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Cough is one of the most common symptoms people schedule a visit with their doctor about. During cold and flu season, persistent dry cough fills the primary care doctors schedule. It’s just a cough, but it won’t go away . . . could it be lung cancer? Tuberculosis? Coworkers, friends and family will tell you “go see a doctor for that cough.”

So here’s what you need to know:

What is causing your persistent dry cough?

Now, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Am I a smoker now or was I in the past?
  2. Do I take an ACE inhibitor medication?
  3. Did my doctor do a chest x-ray and is it normal? (Any cough present more than 8 weeks should be evaluated with a chest x-ray).

If you’ve answered no to these questions, 99.4% of you have one of the above 5 causes of a persistent cough—so no need to read any further.

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What is NOT a likely cause of persistent dry cough?

Here are the dangerous things patients worry may be the cause of their cough . . . and why you probably don’t have them:

Final note: if you have a cough along with fever, shortness of breath, chest pain, weakness, and/or nausea and vomiting, it is NOT a persistent dry cough. That’s a different story. See your primary care doctor if this is the case.

Dr O.

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