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December 24th, 2009
09:31 AM ET

How can I get rid of a lingering cough after having H1N1 flu?

As a feature of CNNhealth.com, our team of expert doctors will answer readers' questions. Here's a question for Dr. Gupta.

From Scott, Oregon

“After suffering through the H1N1 flu for almost a week, I feel completely healthy, save for a lingering cough. There is not much if any mucous involved, it's just a sensation that makes me constantly want to clear my throat. I am a healthy 33 year old male with no chronic illness; no allergies and I have never smoked.”

Answer:

You are not alone, Scott. Persistent, nagging cough is a common complaint among people who contract the H1N1 virus, even healthy non-smokers like you. Some say that the cough lasts for days – sometimes weeks – after other overt symptoms like fever, nausea, fatigue and congestion go away.

It's sort of like having a house guest who has worn out their welcome.

So why does the cough stick around for so long? The H1N1 virus causes inflammation in the respiratory tract, which includes the back of the throat and bronchial tubes that branch out in the lungs. The virus attacks that lung tissue, causing irritation. So although you are not suffering from the flu any longer, irritation in the mucus membranes lining your respiratory tract is still healing, and that is manifesting as a cough you cannot shake.

Unfortunately, the best thing for you to do is wait it out. Your cough could be a bothersome symptom for another two or three weeks, but it should dissipate as your respiratory tract heals. There are some effective cough medicines out there available over the counter, and even stronger ones in prescription form, but the good news: this is likely to get better on its own.

Incidentally, residual cough is common with most flu, including seasonal strains. As long as you are fever-free and otherwise feel well, there is little chance that your cough is spreading the H1N1 virus. The incubation period for H1N1 – the time during which you are most infectious to others – is between one and seven days.

Of course if several weeks go by and the cough has not subsided, you may decide to visit your doctor.


soundoff (20 Responses)
  1. Lauren Rogers

    I have a H1N1 question that I really need answered. Is it possible to pass along H1N1 to another person via germs on skin or clothing? I've had the shot, but since I am in janitorial i wonder if that's enough. I use gloves in bathrooms, but I'm still wondering if it might be possible to accidentally infect somebody with germs on my shirt, etc.

    Many thanks to anyone who can answer this for me.

    December 24, 2009 at 23:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Francis Arome

    Hi, how can i really know if i have pneumonia? I have had symptoms which i think are related to pneumonia- difficulties in breathing(which becomes worse when ever i drink chilled water or the weather get cold) chest pains, cough, cold. The doctor said am havin minor asthma but i know am not asthmatic. Please what can i do? Francis Arome, Abuja, Nigeria.

    December 26, 2009 at 17:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Leanne Strong

    I used to go to a summer camp for children with disabilities. usually, we would stay for two weeks, and go home for two nights in between weeks. The last year I was there, a lot of the campers and counselors were getting sick with fevers, and some of the people who got sick even had to go home before the first week was over. There were so many cases of the flu at camp, that the head of the camp decided to shut the camp down after the first week. A few days later there was an article in the paper telling about the camp shutting down early due to fevers. The article said that sixteen people at the camp got sick with fevers, and ten out of those sixteen were diagnosed with type A Influenza, and six out of the ten people who were diagnosed with the flu were being tested for H1N1. I was one of the lucky ones, because I didn't run a fever, but some of the People in my unit were not. one girl in my unit had a temperature of 102, another girl in my unit had a tempreature of 98.7. on the last day we were there for what was "supposed to be" the "first week", we were told to go up to the dining hall for the closing ceremony after my unit had a picnic lunch. I wondered why we were having the closing ceremony. The second week hadn't even started yet! When we got up to the dining hall, I found out that the head of the camp had out that the head of the camp had decided to shut the camp down early so not very many other campers or counselors would get sick with fevers. When I went back to school, my speech therapist told me that her friend who works at that camp got sick right after the week was over. I am lucky I didn't get the flu!

    December 27, 2009 at 02:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Dr:M.Samy elkhwas

    I want 2 know more about h1n1 as i didn't see patients and i prefere 2

    December 27, 2009 at 05:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. John P.

    I have found that some patients respond to leukotriene receptor antagonists for those persistent post-infectious bronchial hyperreactivity coughs

    December 27, 2009 at 12:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Marjorie

    thanks you I will check with my doc to see about leukotriene.receptor antagonist...can you elaborate on what exactly they are?

    December 28, 2009 at 17:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Andrew

    Leukotrienes are one of the modulators of inflammation - similar to prostaglandins (all are derrivatives of arachadonic acid). In any case, medications like monteleukast (Singulair(R)) or zarfirleukast (Accolate(r)) work by blocking the actions of leukotrienes on their respective receptors, thus attenuating the inflammatory response in the lungs. That said, I am not aware of any data to support using them in this setting and am not sure they will bring you the "over-night" relief that many patients with peri-influenza cough are looking for. Additionally, these medications are all brand name products and carry with them "wallet toxicity" (i.e., are all in the $25-50 co-pay range...assuming you have prescription drug coverage).

    The approach to treating a hacking, non-productive cough associated with the flu is by using products such as dextromethorphan, codeine, or benzonatate. These medications work by reducing the cough reflex either at the site (i.e., your throat and lungs) or centrally (i.e., tricking your body into not letting you cough with minimal irritation).

    December 30, 2009 at 15:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Dr.D11

    Thank you for the comment re:Monteleukast effect.
    You report failed to mention cough reflex originating from the
    bronchioli and alveoli.If there is such a thing,how one suppresses
    such a reflex?

    December 30, 2009 at 19:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Dan G

    Why is it that nobody is confirming flu with lab test?

    I have been sick now for over a week, with the worse flu that I have had in over 25 years. I'm 40 years old this March. Was not eligible for vaccine in my state until last week, well, that was too late! Went to my doctor and was given some azithromycin and robutussin ac (codeine).

    I've been out from work for a week and one day now. Totally missed out on New Years Eve and I feel moderately better from what I was feeling last week. It just is disturbing me that there appears to no longer be a big emphasis on testing and confirming the flu diagnosis.

    Why is this? Does the medical community not want to know if those of us who are sick really have H1N1?

    January 4, 2010 at 12:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. kk

    I had H1N1 a month ago, and was out of work for a week.
    Now, the only residual symptom I have is tightness of chest, some sinus congestion, and a productive, sporadic cough.
    I have seen my doctor twice during this time, as I was panicking about my chest symptoms. I was diagnosed with mild athmsa, put on an inhaler (Pro-Air) and given antibiotics. The cold weather can really exacerbate athsma symptoms, and the chest tightness can be bothersome.
    Bottom line: Just because you have chest tighness doesn't mean you have pneumonia. See your doctor so they can listed to your breathing, check your oxygenation levels and give you a chest X-ray if warranted.

    January 10, 2010 at 14:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. sb

    Testing for H1N1 is no longer advised as the rapid influenza test is only about half right. If you are having flu symptoms and it's been confirmed in your community, then you probably have the flu. Why do you want a nasal swab shoved up your nose for a test that may show the incorrect results? I work in a large ER and medical clinic–we have not been testing for the flu since December. The flu can last for up to 2 weeks and you can cough for 3-4 weeks. Unless you have chronic illnesses (diabetes, heart disease, asthma, COPD) and are usually healthy, you will get over the flu without problem. And for the love of God people-please quit demanding antibiotics! Cold/flu/bronchitis–all viruses and will not be cured with an antibiotic!!! I could be so much more produbtive if I didn't have to spend 10 minutes arguing with a patient on why they don't need an antibiotic!!

    January 28, 2010 at 11:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Causes of Sinusitis

    Hey, thanks for a great post. My doctor also says that unfortunately the best thing for you to do after the H1N1 virus is to wait it out. He did prescribe me some antibiotics, and they have made some difference but it's not long before I find myself taking them again. For the sinus infections, he suggested a process called steam inhalation, using saline solutions. That worked wonders! I really recommend you talk to your doctor about that method if you have any form of sinus infection. You won't regret it.

    August 1, 2010 at 11:46 | Report abuse | Reply
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  16. Lorri Gripp

    Recently, studies have questioned the efficacy of over the counter cough medicines, particularly when used by young children, yet they continue to be sold and used in large volume.Even though they are used by 10% of American children weekly, they are not recommended in children 6 years of age or younger due to lack of evidence showing effect, and concerns of harm.^"*;

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    June 17, 2013 at 00:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Tiffany storey

    I suffered from h1n1 in 2009 and now it feels like it's still there and when I'm hungry my stomach feels weird is this a sideaffect or is it just normal.

    November 4, 2013 at 18:24 | Report abuse | Reply
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  19. Rashid Shaban

    My wife has cough which doesnt heal, we tried almost all sorts of syrups but failed, am worried coz of recent she is pregnant, wont it affect the baby? wat is the long term repercussions for tht?

    July 25, 2014 at 01:00 | Report abuse | Reply

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.