Endless coughs may be caused by multiple infections

Two winters of Covid lockdowns in UK could have reduced resistance to picking up bugs, leading doctor says

The UK Health Security Agency has found high rates of flu and other respiratory viruses. PA
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Endless coughs that sufferers cannot shake may be down to them picking up one infection after another, a leading doctor has said.

As people in the UK enjoy a winter without lockdown for the first time in three years it is possible they are being hit by successive illnesses.

Professor Kamila Hawthorne, chairwoman of the Royal College of GPs, said respiratory infections seem to be lasting longer than usual.

“Most of the public have been socially isolated during the last two winters and this appears to have reduced their resistance to infections,” she said. “This seems to make it more likely they will pick up infections than in previous years.

“So, in some cases, it may be a matter of picking up one infection after another. They are all different and getting over one type of infection does not give immunity against another one.”

Rates of lower and upper respiratory tract infections are well above the average for the time of year, GP data shows. The UK Health Security Agency has also found high rates of flu and other respiratory viruses.

“If a cough is particularly persistent, or bringing up discoloured phlegm, has severely worsened with shortness of breath, or if a patient is experiencing chest pain or losing weight for no reason, they should seek a medical opinion,” Prof Hawthorne said.

She added it was not yet known exactly why infections seem to be lasting longer than usual.

GPs are seeing a huge increase in demand for appointments, she said, including patients whose physical and mental health is suffering from the rising cost of living, particularly energy and food bills.

“It goes without saying that if patients are struggling to eat healthily or heat their homes or are living in damp conditions, then this will have an impact on their health — and the added stress of struggling financially will undoubtedly take its toll on people's mental health,” she said.

Dr Andrew Whittamore, clinical lead at Asthma and Lung UK, said some doctors have seen more patients with coughs this winter, which may be down to weather changes and the nature of specific viruses.

“We haven't seen so much Covid, but it is still there. And we've also had infections such as Strep A, with lots of people coming to us who were coughing but also had sore throats — mainly children, but a lot of adults as well,” he said.

“Covid affects people in lots of different ways — some can get scarring of their lungs and fibrosis, which can cause a long-term cough.”

He said anyone who has had a cough for around three to four weeks or longer should seek help to rule out other illnesses.

“These checks allow us to pick up lung cancers, long Covid and so on,” Dr Whittamore said.

“In many cases, it's some reassuring advice, just to say 'actually, this is what's going around, it sounds like you've got a virus or another virus on top of it'.”

Updated: January 18, 2023, 12:01 AM