What’s the Difference Between a Dry Cough and a Wet Cough?

Janet Tiberian Author
By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
April 21, 2020
What’s the Difference Between a Dry Cough and a Wet Cough?

If you (or a loved one) has a cough, you might be worried, as coughing is a hallmark symptom of COVID-19. But there are many different types of coughs. And of course, developing a cough doesn’t mean you have COVID-19.

Coughing has a purpose. It’s a reflex that helps protect your body by clearing germs, toxins and mucus from your lungs and trachea. However, a cough that lasts longer than eight weeks is considered persistent; if you have a persistent cough, you should contact your doctor because chronic coughs may be a sign of an underlying health issue.  

If you’ve noticed you’re coughing, try to remember when it started. Has it been days, weeks or months? And keep track of when the cough is at its worst — during the day or at night? Does your cough flare up after exercising, eating or smoking? How severe is it? And is it wet or dry — the two primary classifications of coughs?

Here’s a breakdown of common coughs experienced by adults, some potential causes and some guidance as to when to see a doctor.

Wet (also known as Productive or Chest) Coughs

Wet coughs raise phlegm (or liquid) from the lower respiratory track. They’re usually temporary, associated with viruses like colds and influenza and accompanied by symptoms like stuffy nose, aches/pains, sore throat and wheezing.   

But a wet cough can linger after recovering from a virus, becoming persistent. At this point, it’s a good idea to call your doctor, although they may not be able to do much more than recommend an over-the-counter cough syrup. Coughs that are viral based don’t respond to antibiotics.

You may have a persistent wet cough if you smoke or have a lung condition such as emphysema, bronchitis or asthma. If your cough persists, contact your doctor, as they may want to adjust your medications or order diagnostic tests.

Finally, call your doctor immediately if your cough is producing blood. Bloody coughs can be an indicator of an infection, chronic inflammation or cancer.

Dry Coughs 

Irritated, inflamed upper airways can lead to coughing. Since the upper airways don’t have as many secretory glands as the lower airways, this type of cough doesn’t bring up mucus – hence the term “dry coughs.”

Some dry coughs are temporary. Choking, a tickle in your throat and environmental irritants like smoke can trigger a temporary dry cough. 

But if you’ve noticed your dry cough has become persistent, medical attention may be necessary. For instance, laryngitis, tonsillitis and sinusitis can spark a dry cough. And bacterial infections tied to whooping cough and tuberculosis cause a paroxysmal cough, recognized by fits of severe hacking.  

Of course, underlying conditions such as allergies, emphysema, bronchitis, asthma or GERD can cause dry coughing, as can certain medications like ACE inhibitors. It’s important to share as much information as possible about your coughing with your doctor so they can try to find the core cause and appropriate treatment.

COVID-19 and Coughing

COVID-19 is a respiratory tract infection. About half COVID-19 patients complain of coughing. And since COVID-19 can affect the upper and lower airways, it can produce a dry or wet cough. The former seems to be linked to mild and early-stage cases of COVID-19; whereas, the latter is more common in advanced cases.

When to See a Doctor

If you’re concerned about a cough you’ve developed or suspect you have COVID-19, call your doctor. If you don’t have a physician, consider partnering with MDVIP. MDVIP physicians have the time and resources to help you develop a personalized wellness program. Find a physician near you and begin your partnership in health » 

Similar Posts
How to Stop a Nagging Cough / Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES / August 15, 2016
FDA Policy for Diagnostic Tests for COVID-19 / Dalton Dunaway, PharmD, BCMAS / March 25, 2020

About the Author
Janet Tiberian Author
Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES

Janet Tiberian is MDVIP's health educator. She has more than 25 years experience in chronic disease prevention and therapeutic exercise.

View All Posts By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
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