If Your Cough Lasts This Long, Get Your Lungs Checked, New Study Says

A new study has found that this disease is often diagnosed too late, but your cough could save you.

Whether it's because something went down the wrong pipe, your throat is feeling a little dry, or you have a tickle brewing, there's likely not a day that goes by where you don't cough at least once. In fact, a study published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood found that the average child has a coughing episode at least 11 times a day. But if you're brushing your nagging cough off too easily, it could spell trouble. A new study out of Harvard has found that one lung-related disease is often diagnosed too late because it can manifest through easily ignored symptoms, like a persistent cough. Read on to find out how long is too long for a cough and for more symptoms you should get checked, If You Feel This at Night, You Need to Get Your Liver Checked, Doctors Say.

If your cough lasts for more than three weeks, it could be a sign of tuberculosis.

Caring ER doctor uses a stethoscope to listen to a senior male patient's lungs.
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If you have a cough that lasts for more than three weeks, this could be a symptom of tuberculosis, according to the American Lung Association (ALA). Tuberculosis is caused by a bacteria that attacks the lungs, which is why you may experience persistent coughing, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

You may also cough up blood or mucus if tuberculosis is in your lungs, the ALA points out. Other symptoms include loss of appetite, unintentional weight loss, fever, chills, and/or night sweats. And for more coughing concerns, This Is How to Tell If Your Cough Is COVID, Doctors Say.

A new study found that active tuberculosis diagnoses are often delayed.

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Harvard Medical School researchers examined the diagnosis times for tuberculosis, publishing their results on March 22 in the journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases. They looked at the medical data of nearly 19 million individuals from 2008 to 2016, finding 3,389 people who had diagnostic codes suggestive of tuberculosis. Out of those, 738 individuals ended up getting diagnosed with active tuberculosis, but the diagnoses were often delayed.

While tuberculosis is still a rare disease in the U.S., when it does occur, delays in catching it often exceed the recommendations set by the World Health Organization (WHO) to diagnose and treat tuberculosis within two to three weeks of symptom onset. The researchers say most delays range between 10 to 45 days, with some individuals facing even longer delays of up to 240 days.

According to the researchers, one of the main reasons for diagnostic delays may be because there is a lack of awareness among clinicians on certain tuberculosis symptoms. "If you have a patient with cough, fever, shortness of breath, especially if they were born abroad or are an older individual, then you should be ordering a chest X-ray early and, if abnormalities are seen, a tuberculosis nucleic acid amplification test," Maha Farhat, MD, a senior investigator for the study and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, said in a statement. "Yes, these are non-specific symptoms, but the key is to think about tuberculosis as a possibility and to remember that it is still present in the United States." And for more up-to-date health news delivered right to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.

People with active tuberculosis can transmit the infection to other people.

Drink some water. Elderly sick man standing and coughing strongly while his loving wife offering him water glass.
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One of the reasons diagnosing active tuberculosis in a specific timeframe is so important is because people with an active form of this infection can spread it to other people. The Harvard study found that delayed diagnoses for active tuberculosis were linked to a higher likelihood of the infection being transmitted to other household members, as well as an increased risk for disease progression.

The researchers found that more than one-fourth of patients who shared a household with a person who had active tuberculosis became infected themselves, and that each additional week of delay in diagnosis increased the risk of infection spread by 20 percent.

"The delays we found would be concerning under any circumstances, but they are unacceptable in a well-resourced health care system such as the United States," Farhat said. And for more ways to test your health, If You Can't Do This in 90 Seconds, Your Heart Is in Danger, Study Says.

Delayed diagnoses for this disease can have serious consequences.

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According to the Harvard study, 9 percent of these patients with active tuberculosis went on to develop respiratory complications and those who had delayed diagnoses were more likely to experience these complications. The most common respiratory complications included irreversible lung damage, collapsed lungs, fungal lung infections, and spitting blood.

Patients who developed at least one complication were diagnosed, on average, around 32 days after symptom onset, while those who did not experience complications were typically diagnosed and treated within 23 days—underscoring the importance of getting lesser-known symptoms, like persistent coughing, checked out as soon as possible. And for more on your lungs, check out the Symptoms of Lung Cancer You Need to Know, According to Doctors.

Kali Coleman
Kali is an assistant editor at Best Life. Read more
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