Living in the era of a global pandemic, having a cough can often be a nerve-wracking symptom. A simple reflex that works as a mechanism of protection, could today be an indication of something more sinister lurking beneath.
Cough on its own has a purpose. It is an involuntary reflex that works as a protective mechanism clearing out your respiratory pathways from foreign objects, germs, and other toxins.
Differing variants of cough have been studied and also tracked to understand the disease process better. The two distinct variations of cough are either wet or dry cough.
Dry vs Wet Cough: Talking differences
A dry cough or otherwise medically classified as nonproductive cough is essentially a cough that does not produce any mucus or sputum. There is generally an irritant within your respiratory tract that causes repeated coughing. While methods to soothe the cough might give momentary relief, it often returns since the prime underlying cause has not been managed.
Dry coughs have a long list of possible underlying causes which include exposure to allergens, toxins, respiratory infections (such as COVID19), and certain medications. Conditions like gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can also result in a dry cough.
In comparison, a “wet” cough is known as a productive cough. The mucus or fluid production that occurs due to the underlying disease comes up following the cough. The amount and colour 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 among other causes that can result in a wet cough.
Persistent Cough: Symptoms To Watch Out For
A cough can often be a persistent symptom of an underlying disease process. With the management of the underlying cause, a cough is observed to subside.
A dry cough that is related to exposure to either allergens or toxins subsides on its own after a while, especially when you limit exposure. Since productive coughs are often related to underlying infections, once the infection subsides or is adequately managed, the cough retreats on its own. 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 The Chronic Cough
A chronic cough is defined as one that lasts for a period of greater than eight weeks.
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 colour 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. All cough variants should be documented for comprehensive data review. And this eventually paves the way for better diagnosis and patient-centric management.
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.