Believe it or not, we’re now going on year three of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of us know more people who’ve had it than not, and chances are you’ve had it yourself at least once. What may still take you by surprise, though, are the side effects that can linger for weeks after you've recovered. "How long does COVID cough last?" in particular is a question many are asking IRL and on social media.
While a cough can be a sign of many illnesses (your run-of-the-mill cold, for one), it’s also a common symptom that people experience after coming down with COVID-19, according to Luci Leykum, MD, the director of primary care services at Harbor Health and a professor of internal medicine at Dell Medical School at the University of Texas in Austin.
“Up to five percent of people have a lingering cough after COVID, usually lasting up to four weeks, though fewer than half of those people have a cough that lasts beyond four weeks,” she says. “If it lasts longer than that, it could be related to long COVID, particularly if it is associated with other symptoms of long COVID such as brain fog, fatigue, or shortness of breath.” And ICYMI, long COVID is when symptoms linger even after you’re no longer testing positive for the virus or contagious.
While you may have let your guard down a bit, you likely still want to do your best to protect yourself and act prudently if you do get sick. Read on for what you need to know about a post-COVID cough, how to deal with it, and when to see a doctor.
Meet the expert: Luci Leykum, MD, is the director of primary care services at Harbor Health and a professor of internal medicine at Dell Medical School at the University of Texas in Austin.
Why does COVID cause a cough in the first place?
Coughing is a reflex that serves to expel foreign substances from the airway, according to Dr. Leykum. And while it can be annoying, a lingering cough post-COVID is often a sign of healing because that's your lungs' way of clearing out dead cells, per the American Lung Association.
In many ways, coughs related to COVID are similar to the coughs caused by other viruses, allergies, or other infections that cause inflammation in the airways. Most coughs caused by inflammation related to infection are dry coughs that resolve in four weeks. Other causes, like allergies, may last longer depending on the exposure.
“Inflammation itself can lead to a cough causing fluid production in the airways, and because it causes inflammation in the airways, COVID-19 can cause a cough,” Dr. Leykum explains.
How long does a cough last after COVID?
A cough that shows up after COVID typically goes away within four weeks, says Dr. Leykum. And it can last as long as six months after the infection, according to the American Lung Association.
Some risk factors that may make some people more sensitive to coughing include smoking, vaping, pollution, allergies, or asthma.“It can take time for all of the inflammation related to COVID to go away, and each person is different with regard to how long this can take,” Dr. Leykum notes.
Is a lingering COVID cough contagious?
The good news is a lingering cough does not necessarily mean someone is still contagious. “For people with mild to moderate COVID-19, the CDC recommends wearing a mask for 10 days after symptom onset, and for people who have severe illness, the recommendation is to isolate for 20 days and resolution of fever for at least 24 hours,” Dr. Leykum says. “After that period, people are unlikely to be infectious, [but] if there is a concern, wearing a mask would be reasonable.”
How do you get rid of a COVID cough?
The lingering coughs related to COVID are usually dry coughs, which means you won’t feel the urge to cough anything up.
“These coughs generally get better with time, typically within a few weeks,” Dr. Leykum says. “You can soothe your throat by drinking warm drinks with honey, taking sips of water or tea if you feel like you are going to cough, taking lozenges, and keeping yourself well hydrated.”
When should you see a doctor about a COVID cough?
Even though it may seem like we’re past the state of alarm the pandemic initially induced, you still want to take any case of COVID and its symptoms seriously. If you have a lingering cough that lasts longer than a month, Dr. Leykum recommends seeing your healthcare provider.
Experiencing coughing or breathlessness for more than three months also signals that you should check in with your doc ASAP, per the American Lung Association, because it could be a sign of post-COVID interstitial lung disease, which is a condition characterized by scarring in the lungs. Early detection and treatment can stop the progression of the disease.
“You should see someone sooner If your cough changes or gets worse, if you start coughing up more phlegm or have trouble breathing, or if you develop new fevers or other symptoms,” Dr. Leykum says. “People should always feel comfortable seeking medical help if they are uncertain or concerned.”
The bottom line: A COVID cough should clear up in four weeks. It may stick around longer if you have long COVID, which is usually accompanied by other symptoms like brain fog and fatigue.
Emilia Benton is a Houston-based freelance writer and editor. In addition to Runner's World, she has contributed health, fitness and wellness content to Women's Health, SELF, Prevention, Healthline, and the Houston Chronicle, among other publications. She is also an 11-time marathoner, a USATF Level 1-certified running coach, and an avid traveler.