A stubborn, lingering cough has been spreading across parts of the UK over the past few months. New data shows a concerning rise in prolonged cough illnesses, including a resurgence of pertussis, also known as whooping cough.
What is Causing the Cough Outbreak?
Several factors appear to be converging to drive cough cases:
- Pertussis Resurgence – Whooping cough, caused by the bordetella pertussis bacteria, is making an unwelcome comeback. Pertussis causes severe coughing fits that can persist for months. Recent maps show growing hotspots in the UK.
- RSV, Flu, and Colds – Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), influenza, the common cold and other viruses are still circulating widely this winter. These viruses often produce coughs.
- Irritants and Allergens – Indoor and outdoor air pollution, dust, pet dander, smoke and other irritants can also trigger coughing.
With multiple cough-inducing germs and irritants in the mix, UK residents have been hacking away for weeks or months on end.
Cough Cases Overwhelm Hospitals
A recent article in The Sun highlighted just how disruptive the outbreak has become after TV host Jeremy Clarkson was hospitalized with a severe cough just before New Year’s.
Clarkson spent three nights struggling to breathe in an Oxford hospital. His admission added strain to a hospital system already bursting with flu, RSV and other respiratory cases.
Persistent coughs have inundated emergency departments across the UK for months. Back in June 2022, Rosie Rowe of Lancashire told reporters she had been coughing nonstop “throughout summer and beyond.”
“By September, I still wasn’t better…I felt helpless,” said Rowe. She eventually got medical care but recalled the “gruelling process” of waiting for hours at urgent care while coughing constantly.
Rowe is just one of innumerable UK residents matched with a cough they can’t shake. People have flooded hospitals seeking relief from coughs lasting weeks or months due to viruses, bacteria or unknown causes.
Urgent cares and doctors offices have extended hours to manage the high demand. Even so, long waits are commonplace.
Why Does the Cough Persist?
In most respiratory infections, coughs subside within 1-3 weeks. So why have so many cases dragged on?
Weakened Immune Systems
Repeated exposures to germs this season may have worn down immune defenses. Vulnerable groups like infants, elderly and immunocompromised patients can also struggle to overcome infections. Weakened immunity prolongs symptoms.
Bouts of illness suffered earlier in life can also resurface. The pertussis bacteria hides inside respiratory cells and reactivates. Adults find their pertussis immunity has waned years after childhood vaccination.
Incomplete Antibiotic Treatment
Antibiotics can hasten recovery but patients often stop taking them when they start feeling better. Pathogens then rebound. Pertussis and certain other bacteria deploy sneaky survival tactics inside lung cells. Short or missed antibiotic courses fail to fully eliminate the germs.
Viral damage to the airways triggers inflammatory processes that irritate nerves and prolong coughs. Bacteria add insult to injury by releasing toxins. Resulting cell death and secretions irritate cough receptors.
Some cases stem from prior resolved infections instead of active germs. Referred to as post-infectious coughs, they resist antibiotics and can last months.
Asthma, COPD and other chronic respiratory diseases underpin treatment-resistant coughs. Environmental triggers like indoor air pollution and seasonal allergies also drive coughs. Doctors warn irritant avoidance is key for susceptible groups.
Steps To Tame the Cough
With hospital beds filling fast, residents are asking “Why is everyone coughing and what can be done?”
Seeking Early Care
Don’t assume coughs will fade. Seek medical advice at the first signs of prolonged coughing bouts, difficulty breathing or barking fits suggestive of pertussis. Rapid testing and treatment help prevent worsening.
Taking Medications Correctly
Complete prescribed antibiotic courses and use cough/cold medications carefully by following all instructions. Supportive remedies like cough drops, steam and tea can relieve irritating symptoms.
Identifying and Avoiding Triggers
Pay attention to what makes coughs worse then limit exposures. Track symptoms and work with doctors to pinpoint causes. Strict trigger avoidance and air purifiers curb cough relapses.
Trying Alternative Therapies
Gentle exercises, salt/baking soda rinses, honey, humidifiers and cough-suppressing nutritional supplements may provide adjunctive relief from nagging coughs based on anecdotal evidence.
Practicing Good Health Habits
Support immune function and airway health by quitting smoking, staying hydrated, managing stresses and getting adequate sleep.
What Happens Next?
Health officials predict coughs will plague the UK for weeks or months more this winter. Cases may escalate as pertussis outbreaks expand and other viruses continue circulating through spring.
Experts brace for ongoing crush of patients with lingering coughs based oncurrent overloaded healthcare facilities. Respiratory wards have added beds but limited staffing slows responses.
To ease the burden, the NHS has dispatched cough treatment guidance to local health departments for distribution. Officials urge self-care steps like steam, stretching and natural cough remedies.
Expanded vaccination campaigns aim to curb pertussis and flu cases most likely to require hospital visits. Health leaders implore at-risk adults and pregnant women to get immunized to protect themselves and infants.
The UK government has also earmarked emergency funds for pop-up infusion centers to administer intravenous cough/cold medications.
For now, the stubborn coughs rage on with no easy fix in sight. Stay tuned for updates.
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