Does your cough last a long time? It might have something to do with your MS.

As much as I welcome cooler weather, I always get a little anxious when the thermometer starts dropping, as that signals the onset of cold, flu, bronchitis and pneumonia season. Many years ago, I discovered that when I got a respiratory illness, my cough would be the very last symptom to resolve and it would last much, much longer than seemed "normal."

My bouts of coughing also tend to be a lot more prolonged and dramatic than those of others, as it is hard for me to catch my breath, so I turn red and have to lean on something to keep my balance. More than once, during public coughing fits, I have been asked by restaurant managers or salespeople if they should call someone to help me.
It turns out that this tendency to cough is at least partially related to my multiple sclerosis. It is estimated that about 30% of people with MS have decreased respiratory function. However, this number may be even higher, as studies of the muscles involved in respiration (breathing in and out) have shown that people with MS can have reduced breathing strength, even early in the disease. The tests that are used to measure breathing assess the functioning and strength of respiratory muscles by testing maximum inspiratory (breathing in) pressures and maximum expiratory (exhaling) pressures.
Lower respiratory strength can result in coughs that are weaker, and therefore, less productive (bring up less mucus). In some people, this may translate into a cough that lasts longer, since the coughs aren't getting the job done. One study found that lower "voluntary cough efficacy" is related to level of disability in people with MS, so that people with a higher EDSS tend to have "weaker" coughs.
I dread coughing so much that I have become very aggressive in my efforts to prevent or shorten such cough-producing illnesses. I have found that it is very important to see the doctor early.
In my younger days, I would let a cough go for a long time before seeking treatment. I remember a time during graduate school where my cough lasted from Christmas to Spring Break (you can imagine that I was a favorite in the lecture hall). Finally, it petered out on its own.
Now, I head to the doc within a day or two of developing a cough. Even if the doctor thinks it is a virus (that will not respond to antibiotics), she can give me instructions such as, "call me back if it is not better in 4 days," which may indicate that a bacterial infection has developed. A doc can also prescribe something to keep your cough under control – the over-the-counter cough remedies do nothing for me, I need the stuff that requires a prescription.
So, my bottom line here is to take all of the precautions to stay healthy during the "cough season" (avoid sick people, wash your hands, get your flu shot, get enough rest), as well as respond quickly to first symptoms of illness by seeing a doctor. What about you? What has your experience been and what do you do to prevent coughing or make it better once it starts? Let us know in the comments section.
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Julie Stachowiak, PhD

Julie is the author of the Multiple Sclerosis Manifesto, the winner of the 2009 ForeWord Book of the Year Award in the Health Category. She is an epidemiologist who is also a person living with MS, Julie has an in-depth understanding about current research and scientific developments around MS. She also has first-hand knowledge of the frustrations and anxiety surrounding the disease, as she had MS for at least 15 years before receiving a diagnosis in 2003 and has had several relapses since her diagnosis.

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  • Michelle Rutherford   Feb 22, 2016 8:36 PM
    Hi! My mom is a 35 year survivor of MS. She recently started having a slight cough. When she sucked on a cough drop it stopped. Tonight she had an unusual coughing episode scaring my Dad. It took her a few minutes to stop coughing. Do you have any insight why this happens? We will call the Dr and get into his office asap. Thanks!
  • Kathryn James   Jun 16, 2016 2:43 AM
    Recently diagnosed. Feeling alone and helpless. Can't believe how quickly I have degenerated. Where is the remission that in supposed to be experiencing with what they'd diagnosed as 'relapse/remitting' type and being told it 'probably won't bother you much in the future, as it hasn't bothered you much in the past'! I was 48 when diagnosed but hold theat the scarring showing on MRI scan had been there for years, and my 'immune system had found a way of fighting it'. Why do I feel so ill then? I can't walk properly and have chronic backache, and chronic fatigue. Hope they find a cure!
  • Frank Brown, MD   Sep 9, 2016 8:04 PM

    My 40 year old daughter has MD with a cough that has lasted about 8 weeks.

    It is non-productive and worse at night.

    There are no other findings suggestive of infection or disease relapse.

    Please let me know your thoughts.

  • Teresa MacEachern   Nov 22, 2016 6:25 AM
    I also have MS and this cough that will not go away plus when I get it I have shortness of breath.The Nero claims it has nothing to do with MS.My Gp has no clue what it is from.It is non productive. The good part it leaves as fast as it came.Usually lasts for weeks.
    Thanks for your pos
  • Amber Bills   Jan 2, 2017 6:37 PM
    I need some help, I keep randomly choking on nothing while watching T.V or reading or sleeping I also keep getting these coughing fits but I'm not sick and it lasts way to long to be a cold or flue. I'm losing strength in my legs and my arms and have this tiredness that hits me and I have to go lay down right away. the symptoms started a year ago but are getting worse. I cant seem to empty my bladder all the way and leak urine constantly. my right eye has days when it hurts and I don't see very well. I get really severe headaches when I never used to before. I'm 33 years old and feel like I am such a burden on my husband and my kids who I am unable to do anything with anymore some weeks/months I cant even get out of bed I'm always in pain like Nerve pain in my arms and legs that hurts so bad and feels like they are either dying or are on fire literally inside. Please help me I'm in so much pain and no doctor where I live seems to care.
  • Linsey Patrick   Feb 21, 2017 8:21 PM
    I have had MS for 2 years now, I am afraid of everything to do with it. It feels like I have been given a death sentence. I am also a juvenile diabetic. I was 32 when I was diagnosed with MS. I am trying to get used to cold weather but I hate it, I have had nothing but problems. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated
  • Gillian Lederer   Feb 25, 2017 4:59 PM
    I sympathize with all of you. I have had a cough since June 16 - I was diagnosed with PPMS October 2015. I have tried cough syrups, lozenges, chest xrays, Doctor gave me Omeprazole and Nasacort which did nothing and I'm still coughing. Choke on saliva, speaking, you name it - once I finish coughing the tears roll down my face - so I look like a complete wreck. I work retail so I get a lot of strange looks - even had one lay totally avoid coming anywhere near me last week. Saw my neurologist last week she said to follow up with my primary care doctor again which I plan to do this week. But I live in hope. If anyone has any miracle cures - let me know.
  • Anne   Mar 19, 2017 3:06 AM
    Thank you for the information.
    I have had a honking cough for 7 weeks. I have gone through a zpack, 10 days of augmentin and a round of steroids. To no avail.
  • GLORIA J. JERVIS   Apr 12, 2017 12:09 PM
    It was good for me to read this above writeup on you. I have had MS formerly diagnosed in 2007 but with previous symptoms. This last week or so has proved diffcult and I think I need to now look at 'relapse'. I read that you have had manynof those. None for myself have been as sifficult as this last. Now I have had this horrible dry cough especially at night so your information on coughing should prove particularly helpful to me at this time:

    (". . . lower "voluntary cough efficacy" is related to level of disability in people with MS, so that people with a higher EDSS tend to have "weaker" cough.")
    Thank you, Julie. A pleasure to meet you.
    Gloria J. Jervis
  • Tarry Iamnot   Jun 27, 2017 8:51 PM
    Amber Bill's might ask her physician for a referral to a sleep clinic for a sleep apnea evaluation. What she describes sounds like sleep apnea. Good luck.
  • Carole Beasley   Nov 4, 2017 6:55 AM
    Like the article. I have been coughing for two weeks,OTC meds have not worked. I am type 2 diabetic with A1C 6.4. I have been told cannot take steroids.
  • Michelle   Dec 31, 2017 12:11 AM
    I was ever so thankful to see this article. I was starting to think I was nuts. I have had a couch that turns into fits of gagging and trying to catch my breath. It seems like 5 months. I have walked out of grocery stores, name it. I do have ms but otherwise am a healthy 44 year old.

    Doctors say it’s not related. I say, bullshit. I’m so frustrated and get very embarrassed.

    This is horrible! It happens more frequently everyday. Will it start n not stop? I have broken blood vessels in my eye from coughing.

  • Bridget   Feb 14, 2018 11:57 AM
    Trying to get my diagnoses, have had several re lapses. Have lived with M.S for a long time. Now having persistent cough. Has lasted three months'
    I am almost 60 now. Hope you are doing well

    Thank you. Bridget R
  • Celina Falck-Cook   Jun 18, 2018 6:12 AM
    Great article! Helped me a lot. I have MS and respiratory problems and coughing fits have developed over the years. Thank you so much!
  • Stephen   Nov 1, 2018 6:28 PM
    Have had MS for 20 years now and had a cough for 6 weeks is there a way of getting rid of it
  • Jayne Mason   Mar 5, 2019 10:30 AM
    Thanks for sharing your informatiom
    My Gp has perscribed Amoxcoxicillin
    I took one tablet and felt fatigued, any suggestios whats best to do Please
  • Jackie   Apr 23, 2019 12:06 AM
    I’m currently 20 years old got diagnosed at age of 18 I been dealing with ms and haven’t gotten any better I have a cough that comes and goes but takes way too long to go away how can I cure it it’s been 5 weeks and haven’t gotten better I feel really shortness of breath
  • MarlenePotts   Sep 19, 2019 9:54 PM
    I had been told I had Bronchitis the 2nd week of June, 2 rounds of antibiotics didn't touch it.I had been coughing non-stop until about a week ago.thank you for this article...hadn't heard of this symptom.