Wrestling With the Painful, Chronic Cough of Pulmonary Fibrosis
This common symptom hurts the neck, back, shoulders, chest, and throat
One of the most common symptoms of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) is the chronic cough. While patients may have other characteristics of a cough, such as bringing up phlegm, most of the ones I know living with this cruel and life-threatening lung disease have a cough that is dry and persistent.
Oddly enough, when I was diagnosed with IPF in April 2016, my cough wasn’t the most prevalent symptom I had to deal with. I had it sporadically throughout the 13 months it took to receive my diagnosis, which is why everyone initially thought I was dealing with a stubborn virus. During those 13 months, the most troubling symptom I dealt with was dyspnea, or shortness of breath, which was completely unexplainable for someone of my age and fitness level.
Following my diagnosis, my doctor told me I’d likely develop a chronic cough, which would worsen as my disease progressed. As a result of him saying that, I measured my disease progression against my cough throughout the years, which hasn’t been particularly helpful or accurate. Certain environmental triggers worsen my cough, such as extreme temperatures and a bacterial or viral infection. However, my cough is a lot more prevalent now than it’s ever been.
Although my cough wasn’t persistent in the early months of my IPF diagnosis, I was clearing my throat a lot, which I feared would easily annoy others around me. I still have that fear because my disease has progressed enough that I now experience coughing attacks, which are hard to stop without medical intervention.
Throughout the pandemic, I often spoke with friends in the chronic illness community, many of whom are respiratory disease patients and also deal with a chronic cough. We all shared that deep-rooted fear of coughing in public because of the looks we’d receive from others who assumed we had COVID-19. After all, supplemental oxygen use has made many respiratory illnesses invisible.
Fear of how others perceive my cough is one of the psychological worries of having a chronic respiratory condition; however, as we know, many physical issues accompany IPF as well. Others have asked me what the IPF cough feels like because they’re trying to liken their experience of having asthma or bronchitis to IPF. It’s hard to describe exactly what the chronic cough feels like, but did you know it’s painful?
Following are some ways the chronic cough can cause pain to IPF patients.
As I write this column, I’m struggling to settle down the muscles in my back, which are having spasms as a result of my coughing so hard.
For me, sometimes the fibrosis in my lungs feels like an itch you can’t scratch, and the only way to alleviate that itch is to cough. This means I often have to keep coughing just to get some relief for my lungs. Unfortunately, I did that a lot today and have no doubt that I pulled a muscle in my back, despite not having a physician confirm that.
Most of us can attest to the fact that without adequate rest and sleep, everything feels increasingly difficult. Lying flat in bed triggers a cough, so I often have to keep myself propped up at night if I want to ensure I have a decent rest. But sometimes this doesn’t work, and my cough ensues anyway.
When this happens, my sleep is disrupted, and I’m both mentally and physically exhausted and uncomfortable the following day.
As in my early days of living with IPF, I still have the urge to clear my throat a lot. This has become second nature to me, and I often don’t realize I’m doing it — until it’s occurring excessively, and my throat becomes dry and scratchy.
Sore neck and shoulder muscles
We use our neck, shoulders, and chest muscles when we cough, so understandably, these parts of our body can become sore and achy with overuse. Compared with coughs I had before having IPF, due to things like an infection or virus, I’d describe the IPF cough as coming from a lot deeper in your chest, which means you’re using your neck, chest, and shoulder muscles more.
It’s rare that I don’t have discomfort in my shoulders as a result of the IPF cough. It’s just become something I’ve learned to live with.
What’s your experience with the IPF chronic cough? How do you alleviate the pain and discomfort it causes? Please let us know in the comments below.
Note: Pulmonary Fibrosis News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Pulmonary Fibrosis News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to pulmonary fibrosis.