The cough reflex, which evolved along with the capacity for speech, carries clues to what may be ailing you. The two types of cough —wet cough and dry cough— are associated with different conditions. Here’s what your cough may be telling you:
Wet coughs, often called productive coughs, clear mucus (or phlegm) from the upper airways. This clearing of the pathways is a natural cleansing process. Common conditions associated with this type of cough include
- The common cold: A wet cough with a runny nose, sneezing, watery eyes, low-grade fever (below 101.5°F), and postnasal drip (mucus running down the back of the throat).
- Cause: Any of more than 200 contagious viruses; most common is rhinovirus with more than 100 distinct types! Rhinoviruses thrive at 91°F, which is the same temperature as the inside of the nose.1
- Duration: Symptoms can last from 2 to 14 days, but most people recover within 10 days.2
- Treatment: Expectorants, such as guaifenesin, can help you "cough up" or expectorate the mucus. Antitussives, such as dextromethorphan, can be used to treat your cough.
Important note: Because colds are caused by viruses, antibiotics (which kill bacteria but not viruses) will not cure colds.3
- Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)/Chronic Bronchitis: A wet cough with mucus, shortness of breath, tightness of the chest, and wheezing.4
- Cause: Cigarette smoking or other long-term exposure to air pollutants or lung irritants. Not contagious.
- Duration and Treatment: COPD is a life-long condition and requires medical care. If your COPD cough is worsening or if you think your cough is due to COPD, see your healthcare provider.
A dry cough or "hack" does not produce noticeable mucus. Common conditions associated with this type of cough include
- Allergies/Asthma: A dry cough often accompanied by sneezing and watery eyes (allergies) or with wheezing (a whistling when you breathe in or out), shortness of breath, and a tightness of the chest (asthma).
- Cause: Inflammation and a narrowing of the airways. Not contagious.
- Duration: Can develop at any age and can be life-threatening if not properly treated.
- Treatment: For allergies: antihistamines, nasal steroids, decongestants, immunotherapy (allergy shots), or avoidance of the allergen altogether. For asthma: therapies vary broadly and require individualized treatment plans. If you think that you have asthma or if your allergy symptoms last more than 7 days, see your healthcare provider.6,7
- Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD): A dry cough that may be accompanied by a sore throat, hoarseness, a burning sensation under the sternum (the breast bone), or chest pain.8,9
- Cause: Sometimes confused with everyday heartburn, GERD occurs when strong stomach acids flow back up into the esophagus, often during sleep. Research has identified GERD as the third-leading cause of chronic cough. Not contagious.
- Duration: Cough associated with GERD can be chronic; be sure to talk with your healthcare provider about it.
- Treatment: If you think your cough is due to GERD, see your healthcare provider for further evaluation.
- Whooping Cough/Pertussis: A dry, intermittent cough accompanied by a mild fever with a sore throat that evolves into spasms of a severe hacking cough, which is then followed by the namesake "whoop" when the sufferer tries to inhale.11 Although traditionally thought of as a childhood disease, it also occurs today among teenagers and adults whose immunity has been compromised.
- Cause: Airborne, highly contagious Bordetella pertussis bacteria.
- Duration: Duration can range from 3 weeks to 3 months and longer. At first, whooping cough may appear to be a cold; as it progresses, it may appear to be bronchitis.12
- Treatment: Adults and teens are typically treated with antibiotics. Infants may need to be hospitalized. If you have been exposed to someone with whooping cough or think you may have it, contact your healthcare provider for treatment.
If your cough lasts more than 7 days contact your healthcare provider