This article will go over the common causes of a wet or dry cough, what it means for a cough to be productive or nonproductive, and the best treatments for each type of cough.
What Is a Productive Cough?
A productive cough brings up mucus or another fluid from the respiratory tract. It is also called a “chesty” or “wet” cough because you can hear a gurgling sound when you’re coughing.
A wet productive cough usually happens because something is irritating your respiratory tract, like an infection. Most wet coughs that are caused by cold or flu will go away after a few days.
Possible causes of a wet cough include:
Your provider can do tests to figure out why you have a wet cough, including:
- Chest X-ray
- Sputum analysis (coughed-up mucus or phlegm is checked for infection or blood in a lab)
- Blood tests (to look for signs of infection)
- Pulmonary function tests (including spirometry and blood gases)
What Is a Nonproductive Cough?
A nonproductive cough does not bring up fluid. It’s also called a dry cough and is usually caused by irritation in the throat. Many people describe the feeling of a dry cough as a "tickling" or "scratchy" sensation.
A dry cough can also be caused by:
Can Medications Cause Dry Cough?
People who take medications for high blood pressure called ACE inhibitors may have a dry cough as a side effect of the drug.
If you have a dry cough, your provider may do tests to see if you have any of the following health conditions:
- Asthma: You can find out if you have asthma by doing a test called spirometry. You breathe into a device that measures the force of your breath and the capacity of your lungs.
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD): While GERD is associated with heartburn, 40% of people with the condition have a dry cough. GERD can be diagnosed with a procedure where a flexible scope is put down your esophagus to look in your stomach (endoscopy) and a pH acid test.
- Sleep apnea: About 44% of people with sleep apnea have a cough. The sleep disorder can be diagnosed with an in-lab sleep study or a home test that measures blood gases, heart rate, and airflow/breathing patterns.
- Vocal cord dysfunction: Breathing in an irritant or extreme exercise can cause narrowing of your vocal cords in the voice box (larynx). You might need to see an allergist to rule out allergic causes for your cough or have stress tests and imaging studies done to check for breathing abnormalities while you exercise.
Serious Causes of a Dry Cough
How to Treat Dry and Wet Coughs
The best treatment for a cough will depend on whether it's productive or nonproductive, as well as what is causing it.
For example, if you have a cold that's giving you a dry cough, taking a cough suppressant with dextromethorphan in it might help your symptoms.
Other treatments for a dry cough include:
If you have a wet productive cough from a cold, taking over-the-counter (OTC) medications like an expectorant can help. This type of medication can loosen and thin the mucus so that it's easier to cough up.
Can You Use Cough Suppressants With a Wet Cough?
A cough suppressant can make a productive worse because it reduces the excretion of mucus. In some cases, using cough suppressants for a wet cough can turn a minor illness like a cold into a more serious one, like pneumonia.
Chronic productive coughs may need more aggressive treatment, depending on what’s causing the cough.
For example, infections may require antibiotic therapy, while chronic disorders like COPD and cystic fibrosis may require ongoing care with oxygen therapy, inhaled or oral medications, and pulmonary rehabilitation.
When to Call a Healthcare Provider
A cough from a cold typically lasts a week or two and can be treated at home. However, you should call your healthcare provider if:
- Your cough is severe
- Your cough lasts longer than three weeks
- You cough up yellowish-green, pink, or bloody sputum
- You have a fever of over 103 degrees F
- You experience shortness of breath or a fast heartbeat
- You had close contact with someone with COVID or pneumonia before your cough started
When to Seek Emergency Care
Call 911 or go to the ER if you are coughing a teaspoon of blood or more (hemoptysis).
A cough can be productive (wet) or nonproductive (dry). Wet and dry coughs can have different causes and need different treatments.
You can usually handle a cough from a cold at home, but you may need to see your provider and get treatment for coughs related to a chronic health condition or an infection.
However, if you are coughing so hard you're struggling to breathe or you're coughing up blood, don't wait. These symptoms can be signs of a serious lung problem that needs immediate medical care.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is it good when a cough becomes productive?
Coughing helps bring up any fluid that's built up in your lungs. Clearing your airway is a good thing because it makes it easier for you to breathe and can help reduce your risk for complications and infections.
Is a productive/wet cough an infection?
Wet coughs are a common symptom of infections but they can also occur if your respiratory tract is irritated for another reason. The mucus that makes the cough wet or productive is meant to protect your lungs.
Is a COVID cough dry or wet?
COVID-19 usually causes a dry cough. However, when people develop other respiratory complications (like pneumonia) they can have a wet cough with COVID.