A wet, or productive, cough is a cough that brings up fluid, such as phlegm. It can indicate a respiratory infection, congestive heart failure, and other conditions.

In some cases, the type of cough a person has can help indicate its cause. This is because some underlying conditions produce mainly wet coughs, while others produce mainly dry coughs.

Read on to learn about some other differences between wet and dry coughs, as well as their potential causes. This article also outlines the various treatment options available for a wet cough.

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Coughing is a reflex that occurs in response to irritation in the throat or lungs. It is the body’s way of removing irritants such as fluid and phlegm.

A wet cough occurs when fluid in the airways triggers the coughing reflex. Since it produces phlegm, a productive cough is another name for a wet cough.

A wet cough can occur for a variety of reasons. Some potential causes include:

  • respiratory infections
  • chronic lung conditions
  • a heart condition

Sometimes, a wet cough is accompanied by other symptoms, such as:

  • shortness of breath
  • wheezing
  • bubbling, popping, or rattling sounds, called “crackles”
  • continuous, low-pitched, snore-like sounds, called “rhonchi”
  • pink-tinged phlegm

These symptoms can provide a clue as to what is causing the wet cough.

Some typical causes of a wet cough include:


A wet cough often occurs as a result of a respiratory infection. Various types of respiratory infection can lead to an increase in mucus, including:

Other potential symptoms of a respiratory infection include:


The bronchial tubes carry air in and out of the lungs. Bronchiectasis is a condition in which the surface tissue of the bronchial tubes becomes thick, floppy, and scarred, with a widening of the tube diameter as a result of chronic inflammation. This results in excess mucus production, which can trigger a wet cough.

Some other potential symptoms of bronchiectasis include:

  • wheezing
  • breathlessness
  • fatigue
  • coughing up blood or blood stained phlegm
  • chest pain
  • joint pain
  • clubbing of the fingertips

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is an umbrella term for a group of chronic and progressive lung conditions. Some of these include:

Some forms of COPD cause damage to the tiny air sacs within the lungs, while others affect the bronchial tubes, the bronchioles, or both. Other symptoms of COPD include:

  • a wet cough
  • wheezing
  • shortness of breath
  • tightness in the chest

Congestive heart failure

Congestive heart failure (CHF) occurs when the heart has difficulty pumping blood throughout the body. When this ineffective pumping occurs on the left side of the heart, it causes fluid to leak into the air sacs within the lungs. The result is a wet cough, crackles, and wheezing.

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), CHF may produce pink-tinged mucus. Some additional symptoms may include:

  • shortness of breath
  • fatigue
  • swelling of the legs or feet, due to right-sided heart failure causing poor circulation

Various disease processes affect the lungs in different ways.

A dry cough differs from a wet cough in that it produces no fluid or mucus. It generally develops in response to irritation or inflammation of the airways.

Some common causes of a dry cough include:

  • gastroesophageal reflux disease
  • asthma
  • pulmonary fibrosis
  • certain medications

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the most common symptoms of COVID-19 are a dry cough, fever, and tiredness. In some people, however, coughing may produce sputum.

The symptoms of COVID-19 are usually mild and tend to begin gradually. Severe COVID-19 can lead to pneumonia. If a person develops pneumonia, they may develop a wet cough.

Instead of suppressing it, wet cough treatments typically aim to improve cough efficiency, thereby helping people clear the airways. Other treatments aim to clear phlegm and associated irritation in the back of the throat.

If the cough is due to an underlying medical condition, a doctor will prescribe specific treatments.

Treatments to improve cough efficiency and clear phlegm

Some of the treatments below help improve cough efficiency. Others decrease mucus in the back of the throat, thereby reducing the need to cough.

  • Expectorants and mucolytics: These medications thin mucus and make it less sticky, making it easier for people to cough it up.
  • Airway clearance devices: Airway clearance devices use pressure and vibration to help shift phlegm from the airways during exhalation.
  • Gargling with salt water: Gargling with salt water may decrease mucus in the back of the throat, reducing the need to cough. Other home remedies can also help.


Antibiotics can help treat a wet cough that occurs due to a bacterial infection. In these instances a person must finish the entire course of antibiotics as prescribed, even if symptoms improve before cessation of antibiotics.

In some cases, a wet cough may indicate a serious underlying health condition, such as a lung or heart condition. If a person is in any doubt as to the cause of their wet cough, they should make an appointment to see their doctor.

People should see a doctor as soon as possible if they experience any of the following symptoms alongside a cough:

  • foul-smelling phlegm
  • green, yellow, or pink-tinged phlegm
  • coughing up blood
  • swelling in the legs, feet, or ankles
  • a wet cough that lasts for longer than a few days
  • significant fever or chills
  • bluish skin or nails
  • labored breathing
  • confusion or loss of consciousness
  • chest pain

Below are frequently asked questions relating to wet coughs.

Why do I have a wet cough with no other symptoms?

There are many causes of a wet cough, ranging from viral infections to chronic lung problems. Not all causes of a wet cough cause additional symptoms.

How long should a wet cough last?

Most coughs clear up independently within 4 weeks. However, a person’s cough duration depends on the cause, health status, and treatments used.

Is a wet cough the end of a cold?

A wet, productive cough is a hallmark symptom of a viral cold, but it does not necessarily indicate the end of the infection. Throughout a cold infection, the body produces mucus to trap viral bodies.

Does a wet cough need antibiotics?

If the cause of a wet cough is a bacterial infection, then antibiotics can aid treatment and recovery.

Should you spit out phlegm?

Spitting and swallowing phlegm are both safe and effective ways of clearing it from the respiratory system.

A wet cough occurs when excess fluid or mucus accumulates in the airways. It can be caused by respiratory infections, chronic lung conditions, or CHF.

Once a doctor has diagnosed the underlying cause of a wet cough, a person can begin appropriate treatment.

The treatment will depend partly on the cause of the wet cough. Medications such as mucolytics and expectorants can help remove mucus from the lungs. Antibiotics can help treat bacterial respiratory infections, while specific CHF medications will be necessary to treat the symptoms of heart failure.