How Long Should Your Cough Last?

The answer might surprise you.

A new study says people think a cough should last five to seven days, when really it's normal to last more than two weeks. Photograph courtesy of Shutterstock.

We’ve all had it—the nagging cough that just won’t quit. Treatment typically goes like this: Wait it out a few days, then get an prescription for antibiotics from your doctor when you just can’t take the phlegm anymore. 

But a new study suggests this strategy isn’t the most effective—and a waste of money and time to boot.

Researchers from various health institutions in Georgia surveyed a group of adults about how long they expected acute cough illness (ACI) to last. They also performed a systematic review of past medical studies that determined the actual time length of ACI. 

Results found that patients tend to grossly underestimate how long a cough should last. While most people think a cough lasts for five to seven days, past studies show the typical duration is approximately 18 days. 

Currently ACI, a viral infection, accounts for 2 to 3 percent of visits to the doctor. The issue with this, researchers said, is that the rate of antibiotic prescribing for ACI is 50 percent, but antibiotics only treat bacterial infections, not viral. 

“A better understanding of the typical duration of ACI could reduce demands for antibiotics,” researchers wrote in a paper published in the Annals of Family Medicine. 

They also had this to say about patients who swear by the healing powers of antibiotics: The medicine is typically taken a week after the cough begins, with symptoms beginning to subside three to four days later and “fully resolving ten days later. Although this outcome may reinforce the mistaken idea that the antibiotic worked, it is merely a reflection of the natural history of ACI.” 

So next time you’re stuck with a nagging cough, wait it out. Only seek care if the symptoms get worse after two to three weeks. 

The full study was published in the Annals of Family Medicine