Cold won't go away

Dear Alice,

I have been under quite a bit of stress lately and cannot seem to shake a cough and swollen gland. Every time I start to feel better, it starts all over again. Also, I hate to admit this, but I smoke. Do you think the stress has anything to do with the long period of time I seem to have had this "cold"? It's been going on about two months.

Dear Reader,

The common cold usually lasts one to two weeks, so your multi-month cough fest may be a sign of a different health concern. It’s possible you may unknowingly be fighting off a secondary infection such as sinusitis, bronchitis, strep throat, or pneumonia. You may also be experiencing what’s referred to as post-infectious cough, which can last for weeks to months after other cold symptoms have resolved. Whatever the cause, the sheer duration of your cold plus any of the following signs, including the swollen glands you mentioned, are good reasons to talk with your health care provider:

  • Fever over 101.3 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Painful sinus pressure (or sinus type headache)
  • Severe sore throat
  • Shortness of breath or wheezing

List adapted from Mayo Clinic.

You mentioned smoking; it’s worth noting that smoking may weaken the body’s ability to fight off infection. As a result, it may lead to colds of longer duration or increased severity. Smoking is also a risk factor that may increase your chances of catching a cold in the first place. With that said, this might be a convenient time to consider cutting back or kicking your smoking habit entirely. Similarly, stress, as you mentioned, and any resulting lack of sleep, activity, or nutrients may also affect your body's ability to defend itself. Stress reduction strategies, such as aerobic activity, meditation, yoga, tai-chi, and more could help boost your energy levels and immune response. Simply trying to get more rest could also be of some benefit. One relaxation activity that has proven useful for some and may be helpful for you is called mindfulness meditation. It’s thought to help with physical and mental well-being, while helping you focus on being present in the moment.

Other ways you might be able to fend off future illnesses include:

  • Getting vaccinated! While no vaccines prevent the common cold, there’s a vaccine to help protect against the flu, which is often mistaken for the common cold. Many pharmacies and health clinics offer flu shots when fall and winter roll around, so check around to find the closest shot spot.
  • Washing your hands regularly. Hot water plus soap, while simple ingredients, can be powerful germ-busters. So, it's wise to wash your hands frequently.
  • Taking care of yourself. To reiterate, this includes drinking plenty of fluids, eating a mix of nutritious foods, fitting in enough sleep, and getting active. 

With these tips and perhaps a quick trip to your health care provider, hopefully your cough fest won't come back for yet another encore performance.

Last updated Mar 20, 2020
Originally published Nov 14, 1996

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