guy coughing and drinking tea

Types of Coughs and What They Mean

Any cough can be painful and irritating, but some coughs are more serious than others. Knowing what kind of cough you have can help you know how to treat it and when it is time to go to the doctor. Here’s a look at four common types of coughs. 

Dry Cough

Short-term dry coughs are most often the result of a virus. Common viral causes of a cough include the flu, the common cold, and sinus infections. The upper respiratory tract is impacted by these infections, resulting in a cough accompanied by a hacking sound and no expectoration. Generally, your only choice with a virus is to wait for it to pass, but your doctor or pharmacist can help you find a prescription or over the counter medication that will help you feel better temporarily. 

A specific type of dry cough is that caused by croup, more common in children. Croup cough sounds like the bark of a seal, because of swelling in the windpipe beneath the vocal cords. It can be difficult to breathe, but generally clears up after a few days. In the meantime, wash your hands, cough into your elbow, and disinfect items like doorknobs and cell phones to avoid spreading viruses. 

Wet Cough

A wet cough is accompanied by mucus, phlegm, or other expectoration. The nose creates excess mucus as a means of keeping the mouth and throat moist, while filtering out pathogens, dust, and other tiny particles that your body doesn’t want. Phlegm, on the other hand, is formed by lower airways, often as a response to bronchitis and pneumonia, which can be dangerous enough to require hospitalization. Your wet cough is your body’s attempt to get rid of the excess mucus and phlegm clogging up your system. While issues like asthma can also be the cause of a wet cough, unless you know you have asthma and are dealing with it appropriately, visit your doctor. Again, make sure to practice careful hygiene to avoid spreading bacteria. 

Whooping Cough

You might think whooping cough, or pertussis, is a thing of the past. However, whooping cough is seeing a rise in cases and epidemics actually appear every three to five years. Pertussis generally starts out seeming like nothing more than a common cold in adults. After the first couple of weeks, your dry cough can become a cough strong enough it leaves you breathless and feeling like you might vomit. Whooping cough sounds deep in the chest and can last for several minutes at a time. As you try to breathe in at the end of each hacking cough, it tends to create a “whoop” noise, giving it its name. If you suspect you have whooping cough, see your doctor immediately for antibiotics so you don’t spread the disease. Whooping cough can be deadly for infants, so make sure you and anyone else who comes in close contact with your little one has the TDAP (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis) vaccine.  

Chronic Cough

Persistent coughs can stick around for weeks, months, or years. If you’ve had a cough for two months (and still haven’t gone in to see your doctor), the good news is it probably isn’t from an infection. The most common chronic coughs are because of post nasal drip, asthma, acid reflux, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). These may be wet or dry, and all have different root causes. Most experts recommend it’s time to go to a doctor if your cough has been hanging around for more than three weeks, as this is the best way to figure out what’s going on, if it’s serious, and if it’s contagious. 

Last Updated: December 01, 2016