You don't need us to tell you that a pesky cough is annoying (those sleepless nights speak for themselves, thanks!). But we can help you boost your Cough IQ so you can identify and deal with the cough you've got. Coughs generally fall into two categories — read on to learn about their causes, symptoms and optimal at-home treatments.
Dry, Non-Productive Cough
The simplest (and arguably less serious) cough is dry, which means it doesn’t produce sputum. It might range from the occasional annoying cough to a persistent, dry hacking cough that disrupts your sleep. You might also develop a sore throat or a headache as a result of your coughing.
Causes of a Dry Cough: A dry cough is most commonly caused by irritation. Your throat and airways are lined with sensitive tissue that contains thousands of nerve endings and “cough receptors.” When these receptors are activated, they send a chemical signal to your brain which triggers that annoying cough. Exposure to irritants — like allergy triggers, smoke particles or pollution — can activate those cough receptors, and lead to dry coughing. Infectious diseases, including a cold or flu, can also trigger changes in the delicate tissues lining your airways, activating your cough reflex.
Treatment for a Dry Cough: You can likely treat a dry cough with an over-the-counter medication. Cough medicines containing dextromethorphan — the active ingredient in Delsym® cough medications — act on your brain to suppress your “cough reflex" and curb your coughing. The University of Rochester also recommends drinking plenty of fluids — especially hot beverages — and using lozenges to relieve your symptoms.
When To Get Help: If your dry cough hasn’t cleared up in two weeks, make an appointment with your doctor.
Wet, Productive Couhg
If you’re coughing up mucus, you have a productive cough. Depending on the underlying cause, the mucus may range in color from thin and clear or colorless to thick and yellow, green or solid white. If your cough started as a cold or flu, you might notice other symptoms like a stuffy or runny nose, slight fever or fatigue.
Causes of a Wet Cough: Productive coughing is often triggered by the three I's – infection, irritation and inflammation. Your airways naturally produce some mucus as a protective mechanism, but the three I's can increase your mucus production. That additional mucus can activate the “cough receptors” in your airways, and you’ll start coughing it up.
While mucus is typically clear and colorless, you may start coughing up white, yellow or green mucus if you have an underlying infection. That’s because your immune response includes the release of biological agents, which add a greenish tint that gets more intense the thicker your mucus gets. Coughing green mucus doesn’t necessarily mean you have a bacterial infection, but thick white mucus may require attention from your doctor.
Treatments for a Wet Cough: Over-the-counter treatment for a productive cough should include two active ingredients: dextromethorphan to help suppress your cough reflex, and guaifenesin to help thin and loosen mucus. Delsym® Cough+ Chest Congestion DM contains both ingredients, so it may help relieve your wet cough. You should also try to breathe in humid air — like the steam from a hot shower — and drink eight ounces of liquid every few hours to replace lost fluids and avoid dehydration.
When To Get Help: Make an appointment with your doctor if you’re coughing up very thick white mucus, have a fever, or your symptoms aren't responding to over the counter treatments. You should also check in with your doc if your cough lasts longer than seven days to two weeks, or your symptoms start getting worse.
You don't need us to tell you that a pesky cough is annoying. But we can help you boost your Cough IQ so you can identify and deal with the cough you've got.
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Cough
- Loyola University Chicago: Cough
- University of Rochester Medical Center: Cough
- Harvard Medical School: Don't Judge Your Mucus By Its Color
- type of cough
- productive vs nonproductive cough
- types of coughs
- productive cough
- nonproductive cough