Coughs usually take longer to clear up than people think, and the gap between how long people expect them to last and how long it actually takes may drive some patients to the doctor for antibiotics that won’t help, according to a U.S. study.
Researchers in the U.S. state of Georgia wrote in the Annals of Family Medicine that survey respondents tended to expect their cough to be gone in about a week, but a review of cough studies shows the hacking takes about three weeks to clear up.
The team, led by Mark Ebell from the University of Georgia in Athens, said they were concerned that patients’ unrealistic expectations could lead them to ask doctors for antibiotics that won’t speed their recovery, but will fuel drug resistance, cost money and increase the risk of side effects.
“Efforts to reduce inappropriate antibiotic use should target this discrepancy,” the authors wrote, referring to unrealistic patient expectations.
In the study, overall, people said they’d expect a cough to take between seven and nine days to clear up.
The team then reviewed 19 previous studies on severe coughs that recorded how long the condition actually lasted. In those studies, it took a cough — on average — 17.8 days to subside.
“I think it is important to understand that if you do get a cough you’re probably going to be coughing for about three weeks,” said Jeffrey Linder, who was not involved in the study but has done similar research.
“Also, there is evidence out there that getting an antibiotic at any point in the course is not going to make it shorter,” added Linder.
According to the researchers, about 50 per cent of patients with an acute cough in 2006 were prescribed an antibiotic. But most respiratory infections are caused by viruses, while antibiotics affect bacteria.
Ebell said that patients should call their doctors if they bring up blood when they cough or are short of breath, while Linder said they should also do so if their cough lasts longer than a month or gets worse.
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