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.”


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.

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