When that nagging cough is actually something more

(BPT) – Working mom Betsy had a fulfilling career and a loving family. The only thing standing in the way of her ability to fully enjoy her life was a persistent cough that just wouldn’t stop. Eventually, instead of doing the things she enjoyed, like spending time with her twin boys or going to dinner with friends, her life became something else entirely. That nagging cough – over and over again – coupled with difficulty breathing and fatigue made her feel weaker and weaker.

Betsy had a history of spontaneous lung collapses and a cough that would come and go, but her symptoms gradually became worse and began to impact her life. After a visit to her doctor, Betsy was diagnosed with bronchitis and given remedies to soothe her coughing. When weeks passed and she saw no improvement to her health, she knew she had to find answers.

‘I tried to read my boys books at night and it was a real struggle just to get through the book without coughing… Not knowing what was happening to me, nobody being able to give me any answers, it was really scary.’

As Betsy’s coughing and fatigue became progressively worse, her doctor ordered a CAT scan and a sputum culture. The results of these tests provided an answer for Betsy and her doctor – she had a chronic and progressive lung condition called nontuberculous mycobacteria, or NTM.

About NTM

NTM lung disease is an infection caused by bacteria that is inhaled through the nose and mouth. NTM bacteria can be found in a variety of environments, from tap water to soil in parks and gardens. In fact, one study across 25 states showed that NTM bacteria was found in nearly eight out of ten water samples. Everyone comes into contact with NTM bacteria during their daily lives, but not everyone is at risk of getting NTM. Most people do not become infected because their lungs are healthy enough to get rid of NTM bacteria.

However, people who have conditions such as bronchiectasis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma are at greater risk of NTM infection. That’s because damage caused by lung conditions makes them more vulnerable to infection. People with NTM infection tend to be middle-aged and have existing respiratory conditions.

With signs and symptoms similar to those of other respiratory conditions, like cough, fatigue and shortness of breath, NTM is sometimes misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all. Diagnosis can be delayed because people assume their symptoms are associated with a lung condition they already know they have.

Prevalence of NTM

There are an estimated 86,000 cases of NTM lung infections in the United States – a number that continues to grow more than eight percent each year. In particular, NTM infections are growing among people over 65 years old, a population that’s expected to nearly double by 2030. Unfortunately, many people who have NTM infection may not even know they have it.

Talk to your Doctor about NTM

Because NTM is a chronic and progressive disease, it is important to make a definitive diagnosis as soon as possible. Delayed diagnosis can lead to delayed treatment, which may lead to a worsening of symptoms and existing respiratory conditions. As the condition gets worse over time, NTM can result in severe and permanent lung damage.

If you think you could have NTM, it is important to talk with your healthcare provider about your symptoms. Visit for information about NTM and talk to your doctor to see if getting tested for NTM might be right for you.

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* That nagging cough, it gets us all at some time or another. But when can we expect it to go away?

How long would you guess a cough lasts?

“A sickness cough- probably, maybe a week,” says Leslie Morris.

Mother of two Leslie Morris had the number one answer.

How long do you think a cough lasts?

“You mean like a cold and a cough? A week,” says Susan Brown.

Both ladies are wrong. Experts find nationwide, the majority of people underestimate the length of time it takes to clear a cough.

“Most complaints we get from cough are usually associated with some sort of viral illness to begin with. The other symptoms resolve, but the cough persists. The patients say ‘Dr. Singh I have this cough I’ve had it for seven days it’s not going away’,” says Dr. Mala Singh, family practitioner with Lee Memorial Health System.

Although we may wish to send our hacking packing, this annoying symptom sticks around- on average for 18 days, sometimes longer.

“I tell them time will heal, let it resolve,” says Dr. Singh.

Problem is people are impatient. The longer a cough lingers, the more likely someone is to think they need antibiotics. That could actually do more harm than good.

“If the cough is persistent, they come back and see me and say ‘ok I want an antibiotic right now. The patients get use to the antibiotics. They lower their immune system by doing that. They don’t have the resistance to fight anymore,” says Dr. Singh.

Antibiotics treat bacterial illnesses, not viral ones. According to the CDC of the more than 7 million annual cases of acute cough. More than 90% were viral. Meaning antibiotics wouldn’t help. Maybe more people should take a cue from Morris.

“I think I’ve taken antibiotics once in my life that I know of. So I really wouldn’t go looking for them,” says Morris.

Knowing the length of the average cough, may give you a little relief.

View More Health Matters video segments at

Lee Memorial Health System in Fort Myers, FL is the largest network of medical care facilities in Southwest Florida and is highly respected for its expertise, innovation and quality of care. For nearly a century, we’ve been providing our community with everything from primary care treatment to highly specialized care services and robotic assisted surgeries.


That Nagging Cough That Nagging Cough

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