Have a Persistent Cough? This Could Be the Cause

A cough that doesn't go away may not be the flu but could be caused by a mycoplasma infection, also known as "walking pneumonia". Dr Ong Thun How, Senior Consultant at the Department of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, Singapore General Hospital (SGH) explains. (iStock photo)

A persistent cough which lasts for more than a week may not be just a mild infection. It could be due to an infection caused by bacteria known as mycoplasma, one of the smallest known free-living micro-organisms.

About mycoplasma infection ("walking pneumonia")

Milder than other types of pneumonia, a mycoplasma infection is quite common and sometimes known as "walking pneumonia". Anyone can get infected with the bacteria, although it is more common in younger people, especially those aged between five and 20. While no exact numbers are available on how many people have this type of pneumonia, it is estimated that 10 to 15 per cent of those with pneumonia have mycoplasma pneumonia.

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"Mycoplasma causes a persistent cough which lingers for weeks. It may be associated with fever, headache and discomfort, and the patient may have a scratchy, sore throat," said Dr Ong Thun How, Senior Consultant, Department of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, Singapore General Hospital (SGH), a member of the SingHealth group.

Some symptoms are similar to those of other respiratory tract infections like the common cold. However, unlike the common cold, patients seldom sneeze or have a runny nose, and they take a longer time to recover from the illness. "Mycoplasma infections can also be associated with a rash," said Dr Ong.

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Stop the spread

The bacteria can fester in the system for up to three weeks. Symptoms can last for days to weeks. Someone with a lingering cough can take weeks to recover if untreated. During this time, germs can be easily spread from person to person, especially in crowded places. In fact, someone with mycoplasma is contagious for several weeks even after acute infection, said Dr Ong.

People at the highest risk for mycoplasma pneumonia are those who live or work in crowded areas like schools and daycare centres. The best thing to do to avoid getting the infection is to stay away from those who are coughing, said Dr Ong.

Related article: How is mycoplasma infection ("walking pneumonia") treated?


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