Coughs can linger for weeks after getting sick. Here’s why — and how to get over it faster.

African-American man coughing in his hand and wearing a scarf
About 1 in 4 people who have had a cold or other respiratory infection will have a lingering cough, say experts. (Getty Images)

Dealing with a cough has never been fun, but it's particularly concerning ever since the COVID-19 pandemic. Having a cough now means getting some side-eye when you're out in public, making this an issue you want to clear up quickly.

But sometimes coughs can linger well beyond the initial illness, raising plenty of questions about what's behind your cough that won't quit — and how to finally get rid of it. Know this: While annoying, a lingering cough is an issue plenty of people deal with after they recover from an illness. "About 1 in 4 people who have had a cold or other respiratory infection will have a lingering cough," Aline M. Holmes, an associate professor at Rutgers University School of Nursing, tells Yahoo Life.

Here's what you need to know about why some coughs stick around, plus when to see a doctor.

Why can a cough linger?

Respiratory illnesses usually have what's known in the medical community as an "acute" phase, or what most people think of as the infection itself, Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and expert in infectious diseases at the University at Buffalo in Buffalo, N.Y., tells Yahoo Life. After that, the illness goes through a decline and convalescence period, which is why you're slowly getting better, he explains. In many cases, you don't just magically get better once the acute phase of your illness is done — it takes some time to get back to your baseline, Russo says. If you still have a cough after you feel better, you may simply have "residual inflammation" while your damaged airway tissue heals from the infection, he explains.

"Coughing is protective. It removes irritants from the lungs and protects the airway," Dr. Jonathan Parsons, a pulmonologist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life. But that residual inflammation "is not necessarily a sign the infection is active or persistent," Parsons says.

You can also have a lingering cough from postnasal drip that sticks around after the acute phase of your illness is done, Holmes says. "If you have a postnasal drip, that mucus can be very irritating to your throat," she says. "It's a result of your body still working to clear your lungs and upper respiratory tract of mucus, which can take some time, even if you are otherwise okay."

These coughs tend to get worse at night because mucus runs down the back of your throat and into your lungs when lie down, prompting that cough, Holmes explains. "That makes it difficult to get any rest," she says.

How can you get over a cough faster?

Unfortunately, lingering coughs can last for a long time. "Patients often begin to feel better after seven to 10 days after an acute upper respiratory infection, but may have a lingering cough that lasts significantly longer," Parsons says. "Many times, a lingering cough in these scenarios can last three to four weeks."

If you're uncomfortable and are dealing with postnasal drip, Holmes suggests using an over-the-counter medication with an expectorant, like guaifenesin. "These work to thin out the mucus in your airways to make it easier to cough it up," she says.

You can even try honey. "Honey has some anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties," Holmes says. "Many folks swear by hot tea with honey and/or humidifiers."

If you don't have post-nasal drip and you suspect that your cough is due to lingering inflammation, Holmes recommends using an over-the-counter antihistamine.

When to see your doctor about a lingering cough

Again, it's common to deal with a lingering cough for up to a month after you recover from your initial illness. But Parsons recommends seeing your health care provider if you develop more severe symptoms, like developing a fever, having shortness of breath or coughing up blood.

That said, it's OK to check in with your health care provider if you're concerned or if the cough is affecting your quality of life or is stretching beyond a few weeks, Holmes says. "Also, if you have a history of respiratory problems, like asthma, you should check with your primary care physician," she says. "They might want to rule out an exacerbation of those medical issues."

Just keep this in mind, says Parsons: "In the vast majority of cases, the cough will be self-limited and eventually will resolve on its own."