Every Kind of Cough, Explained (Because What Does ‘Dry’ Mean, Anyway?)
You’ve been feeling a tickle in your throat this week, so you took a bunch of vitamins, drank a few extra glasses of water and hoped for the best. This morning, you have a new symptom: a cough. But not all coughs are created equal. Is yours mild and nothing to stress about, or a sign of something more serious? Here’s how to tell the difference. (Note to the squeamish: This article contains the word “phlegm” several times. You’ve been warned.)
1. Wet CoughHow to Identify It: Wait…wet? Let’s get down to the bottom of this. “In medical terminology, we typically refer to a ‘wet cough’ as a ‘productive cough,’” says Dr. Allie Effron, pediatrician and co-founder of Greater Cleveland Pediatrics, a direct-care pediatrics practice in Cleveland, Ohio. “This means the cough is accompanied by mucous or phlegm, and often you may be able to ‘produce’ mucous when you cough. If you’ve ever coughed up a nice green glob of mucous into a tissue, this is the wet kind of cough we are talking about!”
When to See a Doctor: Wet coughs can be caused by both viral and bacterial infections, as well as allergies, which increase mucous production in the nasal passages and lead to post-nasal drip, Dr. Effron explains. “If you have a wet cough lasting longer than 10 days, or a wet cough accompanied by a high fever or difficulty breathing, I recommend a medical evaluation to assess for any treatable or dangerous conditions.”
2. Dry Cough
How to Identify It: Unlike wet coughing, this type of cough produces no phlegm or mucous. “Dry coughs are usually caused by something irritating the throat or airways, such as polluted air, gastric reflux, asthma, or lingering irritation following an infection,” Dr. Effron explains. Motor-tics, side effects from medication and in some extreme cases, heart failure, could also be the cause. A dry cough is also a common symptom of COVID-19, the CDC notes.
When to See a Doctor: Sometimes, a dry cough can be harmless, but if it’s accompanied by any serious side effects, it’s best to get checked out. “I recommend seeing your doctor for an exam if you are having frequent coughing fits, wheezing or chest tightness, leg swelling, difficulty swallowing, high fevers, or other concerns,” Dr. Effron advises.
3. Barking CoughHow to Identify It: A barking cough gets its name because it literally sounds like the bark of a seal. “In children, it’s called croup, and it happens when a virus causes the airways to swell,” Harvard Medical School explains. Adults can get a barky cough from an infection or a disease that causes the trachea and airways to collapse.
When to See a Doctor: Regardless of your age, see a doctor ASAP. Your M.D. will likely recommend a cool mist humidifier, lots of fluids and possibly a steroid medication like dexamethasone.
4. Whooping Cough
How to Identify It: Also known as pertussis, whooping cough gets its name from a distinctive noise that occurs when taking a deep breath after a cough. If you make a gasping (or “whooping”) noise when you breathe in, you might have whooping cough.
When to See a Doctor: Call and make an appointment now. Pertussis is a bacterial infection, so it typically needs to be treated with antibiotics, the CDC recommends. Azithromycin, clarithromycin and erythromycin are the most commonly prescribed.
5. Paroxysmal Cough
How to Identify It: If you’re having coughing fits that make it difficult to breathe, you might be experiencing paroxysmal coughing. (This type of coughing can be either productive or dry, BTW.)
When to See a Doctor: If you’re having trouble breathing, a visit to your doc is in order. Pertussis—or whooping cough—can cause paroxysmal coughing, so antibiotics would likely be given in that case, the CDC says. But if the cough is caused by asthma, pneumonia, tuberculosis or COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), your doctor might recommend a different treatment plan.
6. Acute CoughHow to Identify It: Has this cough popped up fairly recently? If you’ve had a cough for three weeks or less, your doctor will consider it an “acute” cough, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. An acute cough can be wet or dry, and be a symptom of any number of medical conditions, including asthma, bronchitis or the common cold.
When to See a Doctor: Follow Dr. Effron’s advice for wet and dry coughs above. If it’s been more than 10 days and you’re still coughing (or you’re having any trouble breathing), see a doctor for treatment.
7. Chronic Cough
How to Identify It: A chronic cough lasts eight weeks or longer in adults, or four weeks in children, the Mayo Clinic website explains. A chronic cough might be untreated, or it may not have responded to any treatment.
When to See a Doctor: If it’s been hanging on for months, hopefully you’ve already discussed your cough with your doctor. They will perform imaging tests, like X-rays, CT scans and lung function tests to determine the severity of your cough and help you get back on your feet.