When doctors evaluate a cough, they usually describe it as being either nonproductive or productive. Read on to learn what is a productive or nonproductive cough, the causes, and treatments for both.
RELATED: Interesting Facts About Coughing
Productive vs. Nonproductive Cough – Causes & Treatments
A productive cough is a cough that brings up mucus or other fluid, including blood. Often referred to as a wet cough (sometimes a chesty cough), a productive cough literally creates a gurgling obstruction sound when it occurs.
While most coughs caused by cold or flu will disappear after a few days, a productive cough can last more than a few weeks. Symptoms involve fever, greenish-yellow phlegm, and shortness of breath.
Some possible causes of a productive cough:
- Acute Bronchitis
- Cystic Fibrosis
- Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
- Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
In contrast to productive cough, nonproductive cough is one that does not bring up any mucus or other secretions.
A nonproductive cough is also known as a dry cough because it’s caused by irritation in the throat, which many people describe as a “scratchy” or “tickling” sensation.
What is a dry cough a sign of? While a cold is a common cause of dry coughing, a nonproductive cough may also be a sign of:
- Swollen Airways (due to Asthma and Bronchitis)
- Other Upper-Respiratory Infections
Common Causes I Explanations & Symptoms
Asthma is a condition in which your airways swell and become narrow. Some asthma symptoms include tightness or pain in the chest, shortness of breath, a whistling sound while exhaling, wheezing or coughing attacks, etc.
Although asthma-related coughs can be both productive and nonproductive, most cases are nonproductive. A chronic dry cough is the main symptom of cough variant asthma (CVA).
When there is an extra amount of mucus drips down the throat, it’s called postnasal drip. During cold or seasonal allergies, the nasal membranes produce an excessive amount of mucus. This type of extra mucus is watery and runny – it easily drips down and tickles the back of your throat, triggering a cough.
Other symptoms of postnasal drip include:
- Runny Nose
- Swallowing Difficulty
- The feeling of a lump in the back of the throat
Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a type of chronic acid reflux. GERD occurs when the esophagus – the bridge between the mouth and the stomach – regularly receives an acid flowing back into it. This chronic acid reflux causes esophagus irritation and triggers a cough reflex.
Symptoms of GERD:
- Chronic Cough & Sore Throat
- Chest Pain
When you contract a common cold, short-term symptoms usually last less than a week. However, if a cough lingers long after other symptoms have disappeared or improved (up to two months), it’s possibly the result of airway irritation or oversensitivity after a viral illness.
Other Less Common Causes
Environmental irritants can irritate your airways as well. They can be pollen, smoke, dust, pollution, mold, etc. Even clean air that’s too dry or too cold can trigger a dry cough in some people.
ACE inhibitors are prescription drugs for various conditions, including high blood pressure. A chronic dry cough is among the most common side effects of ACE inhibitors. Around 20 percent of people who take ACE inhibitors experience dry coughing, according to Havard Health.
Also known as pertussis, whooping cough causes a severe dry cough. The cough is accompanied by a high-pitched “whoop” sound when inhaling.
Today, whooping cough is more common in children who are too young to be vaccinated against it or in teens and adults with decreased immunity.
Collapsed Lung & Lung Cancer
A collapsed lung (or a pneumothorax) is when the lung suddenly deflates either independently or in response to a chest injury. It can also cause shortness of breath and sudden chest pain.
Sometimes, (and unlikely) persistent dry coughing may be a sign of lung cancer. Lung cancer-related coughs usually don’t disappear but change over time – e.g., more painful, sounds differently.
Heart failure is a condition when heart muscles lose their ability to pump blood effectively. This condition is characterized by various symptoms, notably persistent coughs or dry coughs.
It All Depends on the Underlying Cause
Treatments of productive or nonproductive cough all depend on the underlying cause. Each condition requires appropriate treatments:
- Antihistamines for Seasonal Allergies
- Inhaled Bronchodilators for Asthma
- Antacids and Proton-pump Inhibitors for GERD
- Antibiotic Therapy for Infections
- Oxygen Therapy or Medications (inhaled/oral) for Chronic Disorders like COPD.
For a productive cough caused by a cold, it’s easier to expel mucus using an expectorant. Follow your doctor or pharmacist’s advice to find an appropriate and safe over-the-counter (OTC) expectorant.
Definition: Over-the-counter medicine (OTC or nonprescription medicine) refers to medicine that, although it can be bought without a prescription, are still safe and effective as long as you follow the label’s or your health care professional’s direction.
A nonproductive cough can be challenging to deal with due to the vicious cycle of oversensitive airways, irritation, and coughing. There are a few easy ways if you’re looking for relief:
- 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
Productive or nonproductive cough can be annoying, especially when we are unaware of the underlying causes. Work with your doctor to figure out the causes and the most appropriate treatment course to provide relief.
Hyfe uses artificial intelligence to identify coughs. It counts every cough, allows you to compare and track your coughing over time, and eventually gives you objective insights into your coughing.
All in all, Hyfe helps you monitor your health in the context of pollution, asthma, or even Covid19. 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!