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Average cough lasts 18 days, study finds

Got a pesky cough? If it hasn't gone away in a week, you shouldn't fret. The average cough lasts 18 days, new research finds.

The problem is that people may believe that acute coughs - otherwise known as acute bronchitis -- last about 10 days shorter than that, leading researchers to believe that many of them unnecessarily ask their doctor for antibiotics. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that acute cough illness makes up two to three percent of doctor visits, and more than half of them leave with an antibiotic prescription.

"There is a mismatch in what people believe and reality," Dr. Mark Ebell, associate professor of epidemiology in the UGA College of Public Health, said in a press release. "If someone gets acute bronchitis and isn't better after four to five days, they may think they need to see a doctor and get an antibiotic. And when the first one doesn't work, they come back four or five days later for another."

The study, which was published in the January/February edition of the Annals of Family Medicine, looked at 19 observational studies that had between 23 and 1,230 patients. The studies took place in the U.S., Europe, Russian and Kenya. From the data, it was determined that acute cough illness lasts 17.8 days on average.

Then researchers asked 500 Georgia residents questions about how long they think a person should have a cough, and they said a cough should only last seven to nine days.

Ebell's fear is that many of these patients are unnecessarily treating their coughs with antibiotics, leading to antibiotic resistance. He added that doctors are already seeing antibiotic-resistant strains of infections.

"We know from clinical trials there is very little, if any, benefit to antibiotic treatments for acute cough because most of these illnesses are caused by a virus," he said. "Among patients who receive antibiotics, about half of those will be very broad spectrum antibiotics that have the potential to increase antibiotic resistance. These are antibiotics that would be nice to still have around when we actually need them, like for someone who may have pneumonia."

In addition, these unnecessary visits are raising the costs of health care.

"We don't have an infinite amount of money in this country," Ebell said. "We spend twice as much money per person as any other country on health care, but we don't achieve better outcomes overall. In fact, many of our outcomes are worse than other nations in Western Europe. We are spending a lot of money on things that don't make us healthier, and it is important to figure out what does work and what doesn't work."

However, Dr. Henry Milgrom, professor of pediatrics at National Jewish Health in Denver, told WebMD while he understands coughs and colds take a few weeks to resolve naturally, avoiding going to the doctor if you're sick could let potentially dangerous problems go unchecked.

"We don't want to miss something that is infectious and treatable. Somebody who has a cough that is productive and a fever may have pneumonia or sinusitis or another treatable infectious disease that we would want to address quickly," he said.

Ebell hopes education about how long illnesses should last and when to seek help help curb the problems. He is working with data from the CDC, family physicians and local health departments to create a website that will tell people about the risks they have from various diseases.

"Oftentimes, unnecessary [medicating] is the result of impatience on the part of the patients to get better and the failure of [doctors] to know and/or explain to their patients [the realistic] expectations for the partial or complete resolution of their symptoms," Dr. Neil Calman, chairman of the department of family medicine and community health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, told HealthDay.

He added the study also helps doctors remember that coughs don't go away in a week, and they should manage their patients expectations.

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