What does a persistent cough mean?

One in four adults can have a persistent cough long after having a viral infection or common cold.

Is it something to worry about, especially if you are over 50 years of age?

Normally, it takes seven to 10 days for a cold to totally disappear. However, there is a reason why a persistent cough may continue for longer – up to eight weeks.

“It can take the body time to clear out inflammation that occurs from an upper respiratory infection,” says Dr Russell Buhr, MD, PhD, a UCLA Health pulmonary and critical care physician. “But being proactive and knowing what to expect can put your mind at ease.”


Coughs that persist after a common cold or other upper respiratory infection are called post-infectious or post-viral coughs. They can linger for three to eight weeks after a viral infection.

The cause of a persistent cough are:

  • Mucus drains into your throat, and,
  • Inflammation, or swollen airways, related to the initial respiratory infection.
“When you’re lying flat at night, mucus runs down the back of your throat and into your lungs,” he says. “It can cause chest congestion that needs to be coughed up. When mucus travels down your throat, it can also cause irritation and inflammation, making you cough,” says Dr Buhr.


Most coughs following an upper respiratory infection are caused by the infection itself. But in some cases, the persistent cough may be a symptom of pre-existing asthma (made worse on by the recent virus) or a secondary infection that took hold while your immune system was distracted.

When to seek medical care for a post-viral nagging cough

Dr. Buhr calls them “red flag symptoms”:

  • Coughing up blood, or any change in the colour, thickness or texture of the fluid or droplets your cough produces;
  • Increased frequency or strength of your cough, and
  • Ongoing systemic symptoms, such as fever, body aches, chills, changes in appetite or difficulty swallowing.

“The first thing I ask adults when they present with a persistent cough is if they remember being sick right before the cough started,” he said. “And probably 60% to 70% of the time, that cold or infection is the cause of the cough. But we want to ensure we’re not missing an alternative diagnosis.”

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A special thanks to our contributors

Caroline Egan

DCM Media, agedcare101

Caroline has a wealth of experience writing within the retirement and aged care sector and is a contributing journalist for the Villages.com.au and agedcare101 blog and accompanying newsletters.

Ian Horswill


Ian is a journalist, writer and sub-editor for the aged care sector, working at The DCM Group. He writes for The Weekly Source, agedcare101, villages.com.au and the DCM Institute fortnightly newsletter Friday. Ian is in daily contact with CEOs of retirement living, land lease and the aged care operations and makes a new contact every week. He investigates media releases, LinkedIn and Facebook for a good source for ideas for stories.

Lauren Broomham

Retirement and Aged Care Journalist

Lauren is a journalist for villages.com.au, agedcare101 and The Donaldson Sisters. Growing up in a big family in small town communities, she has always had a love for the written word, joining her local library at the age of six months. With over eight years' experience in writing and editing, she is a keen follower of news and current affairs with a nose for a good story.

Jill Donaldson


Jill has been practicing as a clinical physiotherapist for 30 years. For the last 13 years she has worked solely in the Aged Care sector in more than 50 metropolitan and regional facilities. Jill has also toured care facilities in the US and Africa and is a passionate advocate for both the residents in aged care and the staff who care for them. She researches and writes for DCM Media.

Chris Baynes

DCM Media, agedcare101

Chris has been a journalist and publisher in the retirement village and aged care sectors for 11 years. He has visited over 250 retirement villages and 50 aged care facilities both within Australia and internationally. Chris is a regular speaker at industry conferences plus is a frequent radio commentator.

Annie Donaldson

Nurse and Carer

Annie has a long career in both nursing and the media. She has planned and co-ordinated the medical support from both international TV productions and major stadium events. In recent years she has been a primary family carer plus involved in structured carer support.