Productive Cough: What Is It?

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:

Possible Causes of a Productive Cough

A productive cough can be triggered by a variety of causes such as:


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:

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.

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