Cough on its own has a purpose: it is an involuntary reflex. It works as a protective mechanism clearing out your respiratory pathways from foreign objects, germs, and other toxins. There are two types of cough: wet cough and dry cough.
Differing variants of cough have been studied and also tracked to understand the disease process better.
Living in the era of a global pandemic, having a cough can often be a nerve-wracking symptom. Yet, a simple reflex that works as a protection mechanism could today indicate something more sinister lurking beneath.
Dry vs. Wet Cough: Talking differences
Let’s get more acquainted with the differences between wet and dry cough.
A dry cough, otherwise medically classified as nonproductive cough, is essentially a cough that does not produce mucus or sputum. There is generally an irritant within your respiratory tract that causes repeated coughing. Methods to soothe a cough might give momentary relief, and the cough returns. Mostly happens if the prime underlying cause is unresolved.
Dry coughs have a long list of possible underlying causes, including exposure to allergens, toxins, respiratory infections (such as COVID19), and certain medications. In addition, conditions like gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can also result in a dry cough.
In contrast, a “wet” cough is a productive cough. The mucus or fluid production that occurs due to the underlying disease comes up following the cough. Therefore, the amount and color of the mucus can vary depending on the cause of the productive cough.
Bacterial and viral infections, referred to as pneumonia, are the most common causes related to a wet cough. Infection with COVID19 can also result in a wet cough. Chronic obstructive lung disease, emphysema, and genetic conditions like cystic fibrosis, are other causes that can result in a wet cough.
Persistent Cough: Symptoms To Watch Out For in Dry and Wet Cough
A cough can often be a persistent symptom of an underlying disease process. However, by managing the underlying cause, a cough usually stops.
A dry cough related to exposure to either allergens or toxins subsides on its own after a while, especially when you limit exposure. Wet or productive coughs often have an underlying infection. Hence, when treatment ends an infection, the associated cough usually stops. Coughs are often one of the last symptoms to fade away in many respiratory conditions.
With conditions like asthma or other allergic exposures, it is possible also to experience chest tightness, wheezing, and general difficulty with breathing. This is often related to your immune mechanisms that have responded to the allergens in your environment.
Wet coughs can be a part of a symptom complex which can include a fever, heavy chest, blocked or runny nose, and generalized body aches. While these phases of discomfort can last for a week or two, they usually subside on their own. For the most part, viral respiratory illnesses are managed with simple bed rest and some over-the-counter meds. Antibiotics are reserved for the management of bacterial causes of a cough.
Coughs that are associated with weight loss, night sweats, or fluctuating fevers should be investigated for tuberculosis and possible malignancies.
Analyzing Chronic Cough
If a cough lasts for a period greater than eight weeks, doctors classify it as chronic cough.
In most cases, a chronic cough is a dry cough, very rarely a wet one. Infections such as tuberculosis can cause a chronic productive cough. It can also result in the production of blood during a coughing episode. Blood produced while coughing is generally an indication of something more insidious as an underlying cause.
Frequently, however, a chronic cough can be related to conditions such as asthma, GERD, or a postnasal drip. Smokers and individuals who work in textile or coal industries might also notice the development of a chronic cough over time. Heart conditions such as congestive heart failure can also cause a chronic cough.
However, for many, following long and comprehensive testing there might be no viable diagnosis for a chronic cough.
Taking The Steps Towards Understanding A Cough
It can be difficult to navigate through the process of understanding and finding the easiest way to manage your cough. One of the foremost things to do is to note down when a cough started and what the associated symptoms might be.
Coughs that persist often require medical management. One of the first steps towards this would be a comprehensive history taken by a doctor, followed by relevant tests based on an individual’s primary complaints. Most tests allow us to narrow down a few possible causes before finalizing a possible diagnosis.
Tracking the color of sputum, length of the cough, as well as recording the sound of the cough have proven beneficial to identifying possible underlying causes. Innovation for the often-overlooked cough is opening wide the possibilities for diagnosis. Cough is a major health indicator. And, if tracked continuously, better diagnosis and patient-centric management would be possible.
Dr. Michelle Frank is a healthcare consultant working in the FemTech space. Her work centers around building and fostering online women’s health communities. Read more about her latest work here.