Most people experience a cough at some point in their life. Some coughs can be irritating, making it difficult to talk on the phone or go to work, whereas others can be painful and frightening. The way a cough sounds and feels can help with identifying the cause, as well as the potential treatments.
There are many ways to classify coughs. The simplest way to determine what is causing them and the best treatment is to pay attention to how they sound and how they affect the body.
In this article, we identify the different types of coughs, what causes them, how to treat them, and when to see a doctor.
Dry coughs commonly follow on from respiratory illnesses, such as colds and the flu. These coughs develop when there is little or no mucus in the throat. A person may feel a tickling sensation in their throat and be unable to stop coughing.
In most cases, the cough goes away on its own. However, there are other causes that people can investigate if a cough becomes chronic:
- Asthma: Other symptoms include a tight sensation of the chest, shortness of breath, and wheezing.
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD): This is when stomach acid travels up towards the throat, which can trigger a cough.
- Lung cancer: A cough that is related to lung cancer may coincide with blood in the mucus. It is rare that a cough is due to lung cancer, but if a person is concerned, they should see a doctor.
A person can ease the tickling sensation of a dry cough by drinking water, taking a cough drop, or using cough syrup.
People might describe a wet cough as a chesty cough. This cough occurs when a person coughs up mucus or phlegm. Wet coughs are typically due to an infection, such as the flu, the common cold, or a chest infection.
A person with a chest infection may cough up phlegm that contains small amounts of bright red blood. This blood comes from the lungs and is typically nothing to worry about.
If a person finds themselves coughing up blood that is dark and contains food, or what resembles coffee grounds, they should seek medical help.
Some wet coughs can be chronic and may be due to:
- Bronchiectasis: A condition resulting from mucus pools in small pouches in the lungs that the body is unable to clear.
- Pneumonia: This is when a bacterial infection causes the tissue on the lungs to become inflamed.
- Nontuberculous mycobacteria infection: This is noncontagious and can be accompanied by tiredness, feeling unwell, and weight loss.
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD): This is a type of lung disease where common symptoms may include shortness of breath and wheezing.
Staying hydrated can help a wet cough stay productive and ease the symptoms of a cold. Some people also find relief from over-the-counter (OTC) cough remedies, such as cough drops, chest rubs, and pain relievers.
If a bacterial infection is causing the cough, a person may need antibiotics.
Pertussis, better known as whooping cough, is a highly contagious bacterial infection. Newborns and people who have not had a vaccination may develop this illness.
A person with whooping cough typically has mild cold or flu-like symptoms, followed by an aggressive and painful cough. People with weak immune systems, such as babies, may struggle to fight the infection or have trouble breathing.
Those with this infection are most likely to pass it on for roughly
Taking antibiotics early can decrease the severity of whooping cough, so an unvaccinated person should see a doctor as soon as possible if symptoms develop.
A person may cough if they have a partially blocked airway, and the body tries to get rid of the object. Likewise, a person who eats something large or something that irritates their throat may cough.
It is advisable to call a doctor if coughing persists after a choking episode.
A person who is choking severely will not make a sound when they cough.
Someone who stops coughing and is having trouble breathing may be choking. A person with them should perform the Heimlich maneuver and call 911.
Learn what to do when someone has food stuck in their throat here.
A chronic cough is a cough that lasts longer than a typical illness, usually 8 weeks or more. These coughs sometimes signal an underlying disease. A person should see a doctor for appropriate diagnosis and treatment.
Some potential causes of a long-term cough include:
- an untreated infection or a respiratory virus that lasts longer than usual
- exposure to irritants such as mold or dust at home or work
- pneumonia or another lung disease
- throat or oral cancer
- swallowing disorders caused by other conditions, including dementia
Although children can develop the same coughs as adults, some children develop a cough that sounds like a seal barking.
A barking, painful cough usually means a child has croup. The flu or a cold virus typically causes croup, which is common among children younger than 5 years old.
A caregiver should seek emergency help if the child:
- has trouble breathing
- is turning blue
- has severe chest pain
- develops a fever above 104°F
- develops a wheezing cough
The symptoms of croup are often worse at night, and treatment at home includes:
- using a humidifier
- drinking plenty of warm fluids
- getting plenty of rest
- taking OTC medication, such as acetaminophen
A caregiver should not give a child aspirin due to its connection to Reye’s syndrome. Children under 14 years old should not take OTC cough medication, as they can be harmful.
Croup usually lasts for 5–6 days, but the cough can continue for around 2 weeks.
Coughs are a common symptom, especially during cold, flu, and allergy season. Most coughs are not serious, but some can be.
Seeing a doctor is advisable if:
- a person with a cough cannot breathe or catch their breath
- a chronic cough lasts several weeks
- a person with a chronic illness, such as COPD, does not get relief with their usual cough treatment
- a person coughs up blood
Seek prompt emergency care if:
- a cough gets worse over several days
- a newborn baby develops a cough and shows signs of respiratory distress
Signs of respiratory distress include:
- breathing very hard
- turning blue
- using the muscles of the ribs to breathe
Coughing can be scary and may trigger fears of choking, but if a person can cough, they are passing at least some air through their respiratory tract.
In most cases, a cough will clear on its own, although chronic coughs and coughs in young children and unwell seniors warrant prompt treatment.
If a cough sounds bad, it is very painful, or does not go away, people should see a doctor or other healthcare provider.