Types of Cough: What They Mean

June 27, 2020 6 min read

Types of Cough: What They Mean

One of the many side effects of the recent COVID-19 pandemic is that people are more attuned to health issues than ever before. While it’s easy to panic if you or a loved one suddenly develops a cough, the truth is that a number of issues can result in this symptom. Understanding what the different types of coughs mean — and how each one is best treated — is crucial to protecting your family’s well-being in the coming months. Keep reading to learn more about why you’re coughing, as well as the steps you can take to get well faster.

Understanding why we cough

From a tickle in the throat to a full-fledged hack, there are multiple types of coughs. Though it’s natural to feel worried, not all coughs suggest that something is wrong. On the contrary, occasional coughing is a normal, expected part of life.

Coughing can be a sign that your body and immune system are behaving appropriately. The body often coughs in order to remove irritants from the throat and airway. Additionally, coughing helps mobilize the natural mucus in the lungs, protecting you from germs and particles. An occasional slight cough is normal and rarely cause for concern.

So, how do you know when a cough is more serious? In general, you should seek medical attention for coughs that don’t go away after a few weeks or are accompanied by other negative symptoms. For example, if you’re experiencing shortness of breath, excess mucus production or have blood in your phlegm, you shouldn’t hesitate to see a doctor.

While coughing once or twice is rarely cause for concern, the pandemic has increased the need for caution. If you’re suffering from a cough coupled with sore throat, trouble breathing or chest pain and pressure, you may want to call your doctor to discuss whether you should be tested for the novel coronavirus.

Get to know the types of coughs

Just as various ailments can cause different types of coughs. While many coughs go away on their own — or with some rest and home remedies — others require prescription medication or even hospitalization. Understanding the symptoms of the different types of coughs is crucial to determining the best way to treat your symptoms and start down the path to wellness.

Dry cough

If you’re trying to determine what type of cough you have, start by listening. Respiratory illnesses like colds and flus often lead to dry-sounding coughs that are unproductive, meaning they don’t produce mucus. Resulting from inflammation or irritation in the respiratory tract, a dry cough often causes a tickling sensation in the back of the throat. The sufferer may also have coughing fits that last for several minutes at a time.

While dry coughs typically go away on their own, they can persist for several weeks. If you’re getting over a cold or suffering from seasonal allergies, having a dry cough is unlikely to indicate a more serious health problem. However, some medical conditions can lead to chronic dry coughs, including the following:

  • Asthma
  • GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease)
  • COVID-19
  • Lung cancer (rare)

Wet cough

Unlike dry coughs, which are typically unproductive, wet coughs result in the expulsion of mucus or phlegm. According to a Harvard Health article, individuals typically develop a wet cough in response to an infection the body is trying to fight (1). You may experience this symptom while suffering from the flu, bronchitis or even the common cold. Additionally, a wet cough can accompany the following serious health conditions:

  • Bronchiectasis
  • Pneumonia
  • Nontuberculous mycobacteria infection
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

Sometimes individuals with a wet cough expel blood in addition to mucus. While trace amounts of bright red blood in phlegm are rarely a reason to worry, people who cough up dark blood should seek medical attention without delay. In particular, coughing up blood that resembles coffee grounds could indicate a more serious issue involving the digestive tract (2).

Whooping cough

The advent of the whooping cough vaccine caused a dramatic reduction in the number of people who contract this illness. Still, newborn babies and unvaccinated persons may develop pertussis, also known as whooping cough. Highly contagious, this bacterial illness gets its name from the gasping “whoop” sound that occurs in sufferers. Whooping cough spells may last a minute or more and can lead to more serious issues, including vomiting and broken ribs.

Most people who get whooping cough recover after a week or two. However, in some cases, individuals may need a course of antibiotics to fight off the illness. It’s important to note that complications can develop in young children and those with weakened immune systems. Getting vaccinated for whooping cough is the best way to protect yourself and those around you from this condition.

Chronic cough

While most coughs are temporary, some people suffer from coughs that last for weeks or more. According to the Lung Health Foundation, a cough that persists for a period of eight weeks is considered to be chronic and may be the result of an underlying disease or illness (3). Below are some of the many conditions that can cause people to suffer from a chronic cough:

  • Untreated respiratory illnesses or infections
  • Seasonal allergies
  • Smoking
  • Mold exposure
  • Dust exposure
  • Pneumonia or other lung conditions
  • Swallowing disorders
  • Throat, oral or lung cancer (rare)

Don’t wait to contact your doctor if you have a cough that lasts for a few weeks or results in bloody sputum. Additionally, you may want to seek medication attention if your cough is interfering with your ability to sleep, work, study, exercise or participate in daily activities. Finally, individuals with a chronic cough who also experience fever, breathlessness or chest pain should contact their doctor for evaluation (4).

Diagnosing your cough

One of the most stressful things about having a cough is that it can be hard to identify the cause of the condition. In order to find the right treatment, doctors may need to determine the type of cough from which you’re suffering. Depending on your symptoms and history, your doctor may recommend breathing tests, chest imaging or simply waiting and seeing. In some cases, they may opt to try different treatments, such as antibiotics or acid-reflux medication, to see if your condition improves.

Treating your cough

Fortunately, there are various options for alleviating coughs and improving quality of life. While some treatments require a prescription, there are other methods you can pursue in the comfort of your own home.

Over-the-counter and prescription medication

If your cough is severe, a doctor may prescribe antibiotics, steroid inhalers or other medications to treat the underlying illness. While over-the-counter medications aren’t generally curative, they can help mitigate symptoms. Common medicines used to treat this health condition include cough suppressants, cough drops and expectorants, which help make coughs more productive.

Home remedies

Additionally, many people opt to treat their coughs with home remedies. Taking hot showers before bed can help ease congestion and soothe irritated airways. Similarly, you can run a vaporizer or air purifier while you sleep to aid in breathing. Depending on the cause of your cough, you may be able to reduce symptoms by limiting exposure to irritants such as dust, pollen, mold, pet dander or cigarette smoke. Finally, drinking hot tea with honey is useful in coating the throat and reducing coughs.

Supplements and herbs

Supplements and herbs are another option for treating coughs that don’t require medical attention. Used as a cough remedy for centuries, frankincense boasts anti-inflammatory properties that make it particularly effective in treating coughs stemming from lung inflammation. According to an article published in the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine, patients achieved significant cough relief by dissolving frankincense in hot water and inhaling the steam (5).

Some medical experts believe that spices like ginger and cinnamon can have a positive impact on coughs. Along with supporting patients’ respiratory symptoms, these aromatic spices may help open up the lungs when combined with warm water and steam. A study published in the American Journal of Respiratory Cell and Molecular Biology saw positive results in participants who inhaled purified ginger while using a nebulizer (6).

You can purchase various supplements to treat mild to moderate coughs at home. Effective natural remedies include bromelain, an enzyme found in pineapples that is known to break up mucus and suppress coughs (7). Additionally, individuals with coughs may find relief by taking immune-boosting products like vitamin C, vitamin D, zinc, and echinacea.

In summary

In the wake of COVID-19, developing a new cough can be upsetting. The good news is that most coughs are temporary and will go away on their own. While individuals shouldn’t hesitate to see a doctor about coughs that last weeks or are accompanied by other symptoms, OTC medications and supplements are often sufficient to resolve symptoms and help patients get back to living life.

April Maguire - Contributing Writer, Physician’s Choice