If you’ve spent much of the winter and new year with a horrible, hacking cough, you’re not alone. It’s a common symptom of respiratory tract infections, COVID, and flu, rates of which are well above average for this time of year, according to data from the UKHSA (UK Health Security Agency).
But not only cough so common right now, but they’re also proving pretty hard to shake off once you do get one. Both doctors and patients are finding they’re taking longer than usual to clear and although it’s not known exactly why this is, many health experts believe COVID lockdowns could be to blame.
Talking to The Telegraph at the start of 2023, Professor Kamila Hawthorne, chairwoman of the Royal College of GPs, said being ‘socially isolated during the last two winters’ is likely to have ‘reduced [people’s] resistance to infections – this seems to make it more likely they will pick up infections than in previous years.’
ZoomDoc’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr Kenny Livingstone, agrees.
‘After years of careful measures to avoid COVID, our immune systems are now having to battle one infection after another, which it isn’t used to. This could explain why some people are struggling to shake off a cough or cold as quickly as they might have a few years ago.’
So, if you’re coughing and spluttering your way through the year still, how can you get rid of it? And when should you see a doctor, if at all? Here’s the advice anyone with that hacking cough needs right now …
What causes a cough?
Coughs are usually caused by a cold or flu virus, although they can also be caused by indigestion, acid reflux, allergies, hay fever, smoking, chest infections, pneumonia, and although rare, lung cancer.
‘Working out what kind of cough it is (dry, tickly, catarrh) isn’t actually too important,’ says Dr. Kenny.
‘What matters more is how you feel in yourself and which other symptoms are accompanying it. For instance, if you have cold-like symptoms, it’s likely to be viral and will go away on its own. If you also have a fever, chest pain or feel very unwell, it could be caused by an infection that requires antibiotics. Once you know what’s caused it, then you can treat it.’
When to see the doctor about your cough
Most coughs will go away on their own within a few weeks but the NHS recommends seeing a doctor if:
- you’ve had a cough for more than 3 weeks (persistent cough)
- your cough is very bad or quickly gets worse – for example, you have a hacking cough or cannot stop coughing
- you feel very unwell
- you have chest pain
- you’re losing weight for no reason
- the side of your neck feels swollen and painful (swollen glands)
- you find it hard to breathe
- you have a weakened immune system – for example, because of chemotherapy or diabetes.
‘And make sure you see a GP urgently if you’re coughing up blood,’ says Dr. Kenny.
‘Although cases are relatively rare, long-term coughs can be a symptom of lung cancer, which doesn’t just affect smokers, so if you have a family history of it or any of the above symptoms or concerns, always get checked out.
Read more about the cancer warning signs to watch out for.
What cures a cough?
Not much, sadly! The NHS states that while cough medicines and herbal remedies are available from pharmacies and supermarkets, there’s ‘limited evidence to show these work’.
‘Most cough syrups will do little more than temporarily soothe your throat, which you can also do by drinking plenty of fluids,’ says Dr Kenny.
Honey and lemon in warm water will have the same effect as many cough medicines. Although it won’t cure a cough, it will offer some relief. It’s also child-friendly (as long as it’s not served too hot!) – cough medicines are usually not recommended for under 12s, so always check the label.
Your GP will only prescribe antibiotics if your cough is thought to be caused by an infection, rather than a virus.
Is a cough still a sign of COVID?
When COVID came along, the main three symptoms to be aware of were cough, fever, and loss of smell or taste (anosmia). But since then, different strains have broadened out the list of key COVID symptoms.
Currently, the top three symptoms of COVID, according to the Zoe symptom tracker led by Professor Tim Spector, are actually:
- Sore throat
- Runny nose
- Blocked nose
A cough is down in fifth place so it’s still considered a COVID symptom, but symptoms these days are anything cold and flu-like from coughs, sore throats and sniffles, to fever and muscle aches.
‘The best way to tell if it’s COVID is to take a lateral flow test, which will at least rule it out or confirm. That way you can decide to avoid vulnerable people if your cough is actually a symptom of COVID,’ says Dr Kenny.
How to avoid getting a cough in the first place
As with most viruses, advice issued this year by the Royal College of GPs recommends ‘practising good public hygiene such as regular handwashing, or using hand gels if that isn’t possible, and throwing tissues away once they’ve been used.’
But although coughs are unpleasant, there’s no need to go out of your way to avoid the viruses causing them right now,’ explains Dr. Kenny:
‘We need coughs and colds to build up our immune system and offer resilience to future viruses. Hopefully, if you’ve had a hacking cough this winter, the next one you get won’t last quite as long!’
If you’re worried about a lingering cough or any other symptoms accompanying it, talk to a ZoomDoc GP who can advise you further. Download the app here and talk to an expert today.