Coughing is a way that the body clears the upper airway, lungs of mucus and other foreign bodies. Coughing can also be the product of airway irritation. There are different characteristics of coughs that you can learn to help you distinguish which kind of cough you have.Is yours a productive cough, also called wet or "chesty" cough? Or is it a nonproductive or dry cough? Please note: Having a cough is not a disease by itself, it is a symptom. The importance of your cough can often only be determined when evaluated with other symptoms.
Productive Cough vs. Dry Coughs
What Is a Productive Cough?
A productive cough is a cough that results in mucus, phlegm or blood being expelled from the lungs or upper airway.
In many cases, a productive cough develops during a common ailment such as flu, cold, sinus or respiratory infection. Whenever mucus or phlegm drains down the throat or develops in the lungs, it blocks air passage and must be removed. The body then forces you to cough, producing the foreign body and clearing the airway.
What Is a Dry Cough?
A nonproductive or dry cough is the result of an inflamed or irritated throat or upper airway. The body reacts by trying to clear the airway with a cough, but since there is nothing in the airway, this is often counterproductive, causing further irritation.
A dry cough may develop as part of common disease processes such as cold, flu or sinus infection. Other common causes are:
- External irritants: fumes, smoke, smog, allergies
- Internal irritants: mucus, stomach acid
- Chronic conditions: asthma, COPD or other causes like medications or lung disease.
Possible Causes of a Productive Cough
A productive cough can be triggered by a variety of causes such as:
- A virus - It is normal to develop a cough with ailments caused by a viral infection such as the cold or flu. Sinus drainage to the back of the throat is most often the cause of cough in this case.
- Other infections - Any infection of the upper airway or lungs that causes mucus to settle in these areas can result in a productive cough, often seen with pneumonia, bronchitis, sinusitis and tuberculosis.
- Chronic lung disease - A productive cough could be a sign that a prior diagnosis, such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), is progressively getting worse.
- Stomach acid ascending the esophagus - This coughing may awaken you from sleep and is a symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD.
- Postnasal drip - A productive cough can be the result of drainage down the back of your throat, it might also cause the constant need to clear your throat. However, there is a debate among experts whether the drainage or lingering virus is the cause of the cough in these cases.
- Tobacco use- Irritation or damage to the lungs or airway can result in a productive cough.
If you visit your primary care physician for a cough, then your physician is going to ask you about other symptoms you developed at the same time or shortly before or after you noticed the cough. Tests that might assist your physician at diagnosing you include:
- Sputum culture - A procedure in which the collector will ask you to forcibly cough and then spit any resulting sputum into a sterile cup. It is then sent to a lab to isolate the virus/bacteria/fungus causing your cough.
Lung function tests - A simple inhalation or exhalation tests can be done in your physician’s office with simple equipment.
- Blood tests - Your physician may want to draw blood to identify any virus/bacteria present that might be causing your ailment.
- Chest X-rays - An X-ray will identify foreign objects and determine if there is fluid in or around your lungs.
Should You Treat Your Cough by Helping or Suppressing It?
A productive cough is not generally treated with suppression because it is there to clear your airways. Instead, an expectorant is used to help break up mucus, making it easier to move. These medications can often be bought over-the-counter and do not require prescription.
Cough suppressants can be used for a nonproductive dry cough, but may cause drowsiness. If your cough is persistent and keeps you up at night, consider a humidifier to add moisture to the air.
Throat lozenges may help soothe your irritated throat. Also, stay well hydrated and avoid irritants such as smoke and fumes.
If you are coughing up blood or sputum that is pink or red in color, please seek medical attention as this may be a sign of a serious medical condition.