A cough is a common cold symptom and it can be wet or dry. A dry cough is unproductive and does not produce phlegm, while a moist productive cough is associated with phlegm or mucus.
Coughs caused by the common cold are usually treated with over-the-counter (OTC) medications, but there are a variety of different active ingredients available – the best choice depends on whether your cough is wet or dry.
This article explains common causes of a wet or dry cough and describes the most common cough treatments.
A nonproductive cough is one that does not produce any mucus or other secretions. Also known as a dry cough, an unproductive cough is usually caused by throat irritation. Many people describe the irritation as a “scratching” or “scratching” feeling.
While colds are a common cause of a dry cough, a dry cough can also be caused by swelling of the airways, which often occurs with asthma or bronchitis. Allergies, flu, coronavirus, or other upper respiratory infections can also trigger a dry cough.
A dry cough in some people is a side effect of ACE inhibitors. A drug used to treat high blood pressure.
10 Ways to Get Rid of a Dry Cough
A cough that brings out mucus or other fluids, including blood, is a productive cough. It is often called chest tightness or wet cough because you can often hear a gurgling sound when you cough.
Most coughs caused by a cold or flu go away within a few days. But if the cough is productive, persists for more than a few weeks, and is accompanied by fever, greenish-yellow sputum, and shortness of breath, it may be due to a lung infection.
Pneumonia, acute bronchitis, bronchiectasis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and cystic fibrosis are other possible causes of expectoration. GERD can also sometimes cause chest tightness if there is severe inflammatory damage to the esophagus.
While COVID-19 is often associated with a dry cough, it can sometimes cause a wet cough, especially if it causes pneumonia.
If you have a cough with phlegm, your healthcare professional will want to know what the discharge looks like and how long you have been coughing. Do your best to write down this information.
Potential causes of excess mucus
A cough that you think is caused by the common cold may be more severe. If your cough is persistent, severe, or rapidly worsening, talk to your healthcare professional who may recommend a flu or COVID-19 test.
If you have a dry cough, your healthcare professional may perform tests to rule out other conditions, including:
- Asthma: Usually diagnosed by spirometry. During this test, you will breathe into a device to measure your breathing force and lung capacity.
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD): Although it is often associated with heartburn, 40% of people with GERD experience a dry cough. This condition can be diagnosed by endoscopy (insertion of a flexible scope into the esophagus and stomach) and dynamic pH acid testing.
- Sleep Apnea: Coughing is a feature of up to 44% of sleep apnea cases. This condition can be diagnosed with an in-lab sleep test or a home version that can measure blood gases, heart rate, and airflow/breathing patterns.
- Vocal cord dysfunction: Abnormal narrowing of the larynx due to inhalation of irritants or vigorous exercise. You may be referred to an allergist who can evaluate the cause of the allergy or combine stress testing and imaging studies to detect breathing abnormalities during exercise.
Less commonly, heart failure, collapsed lung, or lung cancer can present with a persistent dry cough. If these are suspected, your healthcare provider may recommend imaging tests such as chest X-rays, computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and other tests.
If you have a wet cough, your healthcare provider may perform tests to diagnose the cause of the expectoration, including:
- chest x-ray
- Sputum analysis (evaluation in the laboratory of coughed up mucus or sputum for infection)
- blood test (to check for signs of infection)
- Pulmonary function tests (including lung capacity and blood gases)
Humidifiers and inhaling steam can often help relieve stress.
Treatment of cough depends on the underlying cause.
If the unproductive cough is caused by a cold, a cough suppressant containing dextromethorphan may be sufficient to provide control.
Other treatments may include inhaled bronchodilators for asthma, antacids and proton pump inhibitors for GERD, antihistamines for allergies, and continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) for sleep apnea ) Ventilator.
For an effective cough caused by a cold, expectorants can loosen and thin the mucus, making it easier to cough up. Your doctor or pharmacist can point you in the direction of OTC expectorants that are right and safe for you.
For high-efficiency coughs, cough suppressants can make the situation worse because it blocks the excretion of mucus. In some cases, it can turn a mild illness into something more serious, such as pneumonia.
Chronic coughs are more worrisome and may require aggressive treatment of the underlying cause. Infections may require antibiotic treatment, while chronic diseases such as COPD and cystic fibrosis may require continuous oxygen therapy, inhaled or oral medication, and pulmonary rehabilitation.
How to choose the best over-the-counter cough medicine for you
When to call a healthcare provider
The cough that accompanies a cold usually lasts one to two weeks and can be treated with over-the-counter medications.
Call your healthcare provider if:
- Your cough is bad.
- Your cough persists for more than three weeks.
- You cough up greenish-yellow, pink, or bloody phlegm.
- You have a fever over 103 degrees Fahrenheit.
- You feel shortness of breath or a fast heartbeat.
- You had close contact with someone with COVID or pneumonia before you started coughing.
If you cough up a lot of blood, a condition called hemoptysis, call 911 or seek emergency care.
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