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Doctors evaluate cough in a lot of ways. You can tell your doctor about how the cough feels and other related symptoms. You can also mention what you think might have triggered the cough. But, an essential first clue for doctors is whether the cough is productive or nonproductive. Read on to learn what makes a cough productive or nonproductive. We will also tackle the unique causes of each type of cough and their treatment.

What is the Difference Between a Productive and a Nonproductive cough?

Productive Cough

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A productive cough brings up mucus or other fluids, including blood. It produces a gurgling sound. Most coughs (like the common cold and flu) will disappear after a few days. However, a productive cough can last more than a few weeks. Symptoms involve fever, greenish-yellow phlegm, and shortness of breath. 

Here are some lung conditions that are associated with a productive cough:

  • Acute Bronchitis
  • Pneumonia
  • Cystic Fibrosis
  • Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) 
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Nonproductive Cough

Also known as a dry cough because of the “scratchy” or “tickling” sensation associated with it, the nonproductive cough does not bring up any mucus or secretions. Moreover, this cough tends to irritate the throat and other airways. 

A dry cough could be indicative of several conditions. While a cold is a common cause of dry cough, this could also be a sign of:

  • Flu
  • Allergies
  • Coronavirus
  • Constricted Airways (due to Asthma and Bronchitis) 
  • Other Upper-Respiratory Infections

How Do You Know If Your Cough is Productive?

A productive cough is the same thing as a wet cough. When your chest is congested, typically due to an infection, you can hear a rattling sound while breathing.

How Do You Know If Your Cough is Dry or Wet?

While a wet cough arises when sputum is in the airways, a dry cough has no mucus at all. Hence, you can call it a nonproductive cough. It usually occurs due to inflammation of the lungs or airways. A chronic nonproductive cough may indicate asthma, GERD, or a cold, to give a few examples. 
You can check the symptoms, approaches, and treatments reading Dry vs Wet: Breaking Down The Cough Variants.

What type of Coughs Does a Cold or COVID Produce?

A general cold or flu can produce both types of mucus (wet and dry). In contrast, patients suffering from COVID mainly experience a dry cough. However, a wet cough may occur rarely.

What Causes a Wet or Dry Cough?

Asthma

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Asthma is a condition that typically involves airway constriction. Symptoms include tightness or chest pain, shortness of breath, stridor, wheezing or coughing attacks, etc.

Although asthma-related coughs can be both productive and nonproductive, most asthmatics have a dry cough. For example, a chronic dry cough is the main symptom of cough variant asthma (CVA).

Postnasal Drip

When mucus accumulates in your sinuses, it tends to drip down to the back of your throat. This fluid movement is called a postnasal drip. The nasal membranes produce excessive mucus whenever you have colds or seasonal allergies. Moreover, this type of mucus is watery and runny, persistently dripping down your throat, causing an itchy sensation that can trigger a cough. 

Other symptoms of postnasal drip include:

  • A runny nose
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Feeling like there is a lump in the throat

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a type of chronic acid reflux. GERD happens when the lining of the esophagus – the passage between mouth and stomach – is irritated by acid backflow from the stomach. The irritation and inflammation can trigger your cough reflex.

Symptoms of GERD include:

  • Chronic cough & sore throat
  • Chest pain
  • Heartburn
  • Regurgitation
  • Acidic taste in the mouth

Chest/Viral Infection

When you experience a common cold, symptoms usually last less than a week. But, a cough may linger long after other symptoms have disappeared or improved (up to two months). This residual cough might result from airway irritation or hypersensitivity after a viral illness.

Less Common Causes

Heart Failure

Heart failure is a condition where the heart muscles lose their ability to pump blood effectively. This condition has several possible symptoms, notably persistent or dry cough.

Environmental Factors

Environmental pollutants can irritate your airways. These include pollen, smoke, dust, pollution, mold, etc. Even clean air that is too dry or too cold can trigger a dry cough in some people.

ACE Inhibitors

ACE inhibitors are prescription drugs that lower your blood pressure. However, one of this drug class’ most common side effects is precisely a dry cough. According to Harvard Health, around 20 percent of people who take ACE inhibitors experience dry coughing.

Whooping Cough

Also known as pertussis, whooping cough causes a severe dry cough. The cough is accompanied by a high-pitched “whooping” sound when inhaling. This sign is more common in young or unvaccinated children. However, teens or adults with decreased immunity may also get infected.

Collapsed Lung & Lung Cancer

A condition where a lung collapses due to deflation is known as pneumothorax. This lung collapse can happen either independently or due to a chest injury. Pneumothorax can lead to shortness of breath and sudden chest pain. Occasionally, persistent dry cough may also point to cancer. Lung cancer-related coughs usually do not disappear. They may also change over time (e.g., become more painful, sound differently).
RELATED: How Can I Clean My Lungs? | Lung Detox

When should I be concerned about a productive cough?

You should visit your doctor if:

  • The cough continues for more than two weeks
  • Mucus smells bad or foul
  • There is any change in the color of your skin 
  • Blood accompanies the phlegm

Your doctor may ask for the history and symptoms. Please remember the cough medicines or cough suppressants you took during this time. Do not worry if your practitioner proceeds towards a diagnostic procedure or chest x-rays. This testing will help plan the appropriate course of treatment and specific medical care instructions.

It All Depends on the Underlying Cause

Treatment of productive and nonproductive cough depends on the underlying cause. 

Each condition requires appropriate treatment:

  • Antihistamines for seasonal allergies
  • Inhaled bronchodilators for asthma
  • Antacids and proton-pump inhibitors for GERD
  • Antibiotics for infections
  • Oxygen therapy or medications (inhaled/oral) for chronic disorders like COPD

For a productive cough caused by a cold, it is easier to expel mucus using an expectorant. Above all, follow your doctor or pharmacist’s advice to find an appropriate and safe over-the-counter (OTC) expectorant. 

Definition: Over-the-counter medicine (OTC) are medications you may buy without a prescription. These are safe and effective as long as you follow the label’s indications.

A nonproductive cough can be challenging to deal with due to the vicious cycle. In other words, an undesirable feedback loop of oversensitive airways, irritation, and more coughing. Here are a few ways you can alleviate the discomfort:

  • A hot drink with honey (to soothe irritated throat tissue)
  • Taking OTC cough suppressants (to suppress the cough reflex)
  • Sucking on throat lozenges (to moisturize and soothe irritated throat tissue

RELATED: How to Stop Coughing 

A productive or nonproductive cough can be annoying and disruptive to your daily routine. However, knowing the underlying cause can help your doctor arrive at the correct diagnosis. Finally, this will lead to the most appropriate treatment course to provide relief.

About the Hyfe Cough Tracker

Hyfe uses artificial intelligence to identify coughs. It counts every cough, allows you to compare and track your coughing over time, and provides objective insights on your cough habits.

Hyfe can help you efficiently monitor your health in the context of pollution, asthma, or even Covid-19. Stay on top of your health by tracking your cough.

Have you tried health tracking apps? What was your experience? Share your thoughts in the comment section below!

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