Ignored by Doctors: Pneumonia and A Broken Rib

Last updated: April 2021

Since I was a small child I suffered from colds that got out of control. Hacking coughs - my mother called it the "seal cough" - that lasted 4-6 weeks at a time. Regular trips to the doctor, who listened to my lungs and said, "It's fine, just a cold." I'd be prescribed a cough syrup that didn't work and was left coughing for weeks until eventually, the infection petered out.

My life with asthma, infections, and chronic coughing

I got an asthma diagnosis at 24, and I now take preventative medication, but it doesn't help when I get infections. My body seems to have a talent from transforming a mild cold that my family and friends get over in days to some kind of monster I battle with for weeks or months at a time. I still get the hacking cough. I struggle to sleep, lose my voice (bad if you are a teacher like me), and have fits of coughing so violently that I get dizzy and lose control of my bladder

There's also rib pain because after coughing violently for weeks, your muscles hurt. It hurts to cough, to sneeze, to talk, to move, to breathe. Over-the-counter painkillers don't work on the pain that strong. When I seek help, doctors listen to my lungs, tell me they are fine, and prescribe me cough syrup which doesn't work. For a while, I stopped wasting my time trying to get help. I just sat it out.

Asthma and a broken rib

But one time the infection just went on and on. I saw a doctor after 4 weeks of symptoms. The usual scenario played out, and I got no help. Then the weeks went by, and the symptoms remained. In fact, my condition got worse as the infection was creeping its way down to my lungs. The problem is, the pain was so intense already, and the coughing so violent, I didn't notice. I was exhausted, but all of this was very familiar to me: it just felt like a normal "me" version of a cold.

We went to stay a few days with my in-laws. My father-in-law is a doctor but I didn't ask for help, because I thought it was the usual cold. I had spent a few hours barking away in his home, when he got the stethoscope out, told me I had a lung infection, and pressed antibiotics into my hands. Two days later, when I didn't improve as fast as he expected, he had me checked out at the hospital. It all ended well, the antibiotics worked, a bit a little slower than hoped. However, I had broken a rib from the coughing. An ultrasound revealed an unmistakable dark line across my rib - clear even to the untrained eye. I was told that usually, only frail old ladies break ribs this way - I was 30.

Chest pain and asthma masked my broken rib

The weirdest thing was I didn't notice I had broken it. The pain in my chest was so intense, it masked the rib pain. When asked to indicate where I felt the sorest, I pointed to the other side of my chest! It was only weeks later when the infection had passed, and my muscles got a chance to heal that the ache of the broken rib began to breakthrough.

So yes, broken ribs from asthma and coughing are a thing. And I am now aware that intense pain can mask a worsening condition. The problem is, after having treated like a time-waster so many times by doctors, I still loathe to seek them out when the cough strikes.

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