Living with a Cough That Just Won’t Quit

One woman’s 17-year journey with chronic cough

Sponsored by Merck in collaboration with American Lung Association and Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.

Reading a book to her six-year-old grandson, Sigrid had to stop mid-sentence to cough. “Grandma, are you ever going to stop coughing?” her grandson blurted out. 

Grandma is 56-year-old Sigrid, who has been coughing since she was 39. You read that right: Coughing pretty much every day, in bouts she can’t control, for 17 years! Sigrid struggles with a condition called “chronic cough,” and it’s a part of her everyday life.

How can this be, you ask? You’ve heard coughing your whole life, from someone sitting next to you on the bus, to your significant other when he or she has a horrible cold. But you may not have heard of chronic cough.

The Facts About Chronic Cough

A reflex that protects your airway when it’s irritated from excessive mucus, dust, secondhand smoke, or even talking or laughing, coughing is considered “chronic” in adults when it lasts longer than eight weeks. Those with chronic cough commonly cough in “bouts” they can’t control, and they usually feel a powerful urge to cough before a bout begins. Chronic cough can often be associated with other health conditions, such as asthma, gastrointestinal reflux disease (GERD), upper airway cough syndrome (UACS) and non-asthmatic eosinophilic bronchitis (NAEB). In some patients, treating an underlying condition doesn’t resolve the chronic cough, or an underlying condition can’t be identified.

Although the condition also affects men, more women have it – typically women in their fifties.

Sigrid’s Story

Sigrid’s journey began in 2004 when an ear, nose and throat doctor (ENT) treating her 14-year-old son asked why she was “clearing her throat” so often and recommended that she return for tests. Sigrid told the doctor it felt as if something was in the back of her throat. “He thought I might have acid reflux, and recommended treatment,” she remembered.

Nothing worked for Sigrid. The throat clearing turned into a cough, which progressively worsened.

Sigrid’s healthcare provider referred her to multiple pulmonologists, allergists and internists over the years. She’s undergone a variety of tests and physical exams to try and identify the cause of her cough.

“My original doctor eventually said, ‘I’m so sorry. I don’t know what to do,’” Sigrid added.

And Sigrid’s chronic cough intensifies every year. “It can happen anywhere, anytime. There’s no rhyme or reason for it,” she lamented. It can erupt when she’s watching a movie with her husband. Taking a walk with her dog. Talking on the phone. Even when she rolls over in her sleep. “My husband and I have different sleep schedules because my cough keeps him awake at night”, Sigrid said. Some bouts are worse than others, and they make her feel constantly fatigued. She also gets tension headaches and back pain, depending on the severity of the coughing bout.

“Chronic cough has changed my life. I feel like I’m 86 even though I’m 56,” Sigrid said. “I’ve always been an active and healthy person. It’s frustrating when you’ve never done a thing to bring this on.”

The Social and Emotional Impact 

Chronic cough can have a social and emotional impact on patients. “My family has adjusted and is understanding, but sometimes they still get annoyed if they can’t watch a TV program without my interruptions, or I can’t finish a sentence and they’re in a hurry,” Sigrid explained. Once an active person (she met her husband at a gym), Sigrid now hesitates even going out in public. “Because of my cough, I feel like people stop and
stare, looking at me with contempt,” she said, “I feel like people don’t realize this is a chronic condition I can’t control.”

Now Sigrid wants to spread awareness of chronic cough and she’s sharing her story as part of The Cough Chronicles, a new support and educational program providing chronic cough resources in conjunction with a chronic cough community for patients to connect with each other.

“A lot of people think it’s nothing, just a cough. But it’s not ‘just a cough’,” Sigrid said. “I’ve only met one other person with chronic cough, so I’m looking forward to connecting with others through this program.”

Visit www.chroniccough.Inspire.com to join the chronic cough community and for information and resources to help you take next steps.

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