Providing patients with information about exactly how long their cough should last may reduce the unnecessary use of antibiotics, the researchers noted.
"We need to educate patients that an acute in an otherwise healthy adult is usually viral, does not require antibiotics, and may easily last a couple of weeks," said study researcher Dr. Mark Ebell, of the University of Georgia Health Science Campus in Athens.
Patients don't need to go to the doctor simply because their cough has lasted a week or more, Ebell said. Reasons to seek care earlier than a few weeks include: having chronic lung disease or another serious chronic illness; shortness of breath or significant wheezing; coughing up blood or rusty sputum; or a sudden worsening of symptoms, Ebell said.
The researchers reviewed information from 19 previous studies, conducted between 1976 and 2010, which examined cough duration in adults. Those with a serious chronic respiratory illness, or those whose coughing was caused by pneumonia, tuberculosis, asthma, allergies or sinusitis, were excluded from the studies.