First of all, you’re not alone. Many people who have had a COVID-19 infection report having a cough that they just can’t seem to shake, even up to a year after the virus has left their system—and, a lingering cough is something you should never ignore. But at what point does your extended cough indicate you have long COVID? After all, one in five adult COVID-19 survivors experiences long COVID symptoms and respiratory issues is one of the most common among them.
But before you worry about your lingering cough being a sign of bigger concern, we’ve spoken with infectious disease experts to help you find out when a COVID cough usually goes away, whether coughing is normal after you’ve recovered, at what point a chronic cough may indicate long COVID development, and how you may treat a cough too.
What is COVID cough and how is it different from other coughs?
Cough occurs in approximately 50% of patients with COVID-19 infection. It is usually dry and nonproductive, says Jill Howard, M.D., national director of infectious diseases at ChenMed. However, “17 to 34% of patients have persistent cough following acute COVID-19 infection.”
Many respiratory infections can also cause a post-infectious cough that lasts (typically) a few weeks after the initial infection ends, says David Cennimo, M.D., associate professor of medicine & pediatrics at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. “This is thought to be due to hyper-responsiveness in the cough mechanism, possibly also due to some damage to the airways from the infection…This has been seen with influenza, COVID-19, and many other infections.”
When will a COVID cough usually go away?
For most people, it can take 3 to 18 months for their lungs to get back to their pre-COVID-19 baseline, says Richard Watkins, M.D., an infectious disease physician and professor of medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University. According to Hopkins Medicine, after a serious case of COVID-19, recovery from lung damage takes time. There’s the initial injury to the lungs, followed by scarring. Over time, the tissue heals, but it can take three months to a year or more for a person’s lung function to return to pre-COVID-19 levels.
When does chronic cough become a symptom of long COVID?
Some people have experienced a prolonged post-infectious cough after COVID-19 that has been characterized as part of the “Long-COVID” syndrome, Dr. Cennimo explains. “In some datasets, around 15% of people are coughing 3+ weeks after COVID infection. In most, this fades over time but it can take weeks to months.”
If a cough develops during acute COVID-19 infection, and lasts 3 months from the onset of illness, it is considered a manifestation of long COVID, says Dr. Howard.
How can you treat a COVID cough?
Treatment for lingering cough related to COVID is not well defined, says Dr. Cennimo. “Many people do find some comfort with cough drops, etc.”
It’s most important to make sure there is not an underlying issue causing the cough, Dr. Cennimo adds. “For instance, some COVID-19 infections do significantly damage the lungs and we can see a decrease in respiratory capacity. Some patients will also have a reactive airway disease triggered (like asthma) and their cough may be masking wheezing.” In these cases, inhalers can help.
When should you see a doctor about your COVID cough?
One red flag is the feeling of shortness of breath, says Dr. Cennimo. “If the cough lasts more than 2-3 weeks or is accompanied by shortness of breath, the person should be evaluated.” Dr. Howards adds that “if the cough is worsening rather than improving, or if it is associated with difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, fever or [phlegm] production, seek your doctor right away to further investigate.”
Dr. Watkins adds that your primary care physician “can assess your symptoms and develop a treatment plan that may include breathing exercises, antibiotics, or steroids. Referral to pulmonary rehabilitation is another option.”