The Different Types of Coughs (and What They Could Mean)

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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Close-up of a woman coughing

Numerous medical conditions can cause coughing. The type of cough you have and how long the cough lasts depend on its cause. It’s important to recognize key symptoms because some coughs go away on their own, while others would benefit from medical treatment.

Wet Cough

Coughing up mucus or phlegm is known as a wet cough. One of the common causes of a wet cough is bronchitis, a condition where your airways swell up and produce mucus. Bronchitis is usually due to a virus, and often develops after you have a cold. This is called acute bronchitis. You may not cough up mucus the first few days of a bronchitis infection.

Wet, Persistent Cough

If you have a wet cough on most days of the month for at least three months out of the year, you may have chronic (long-lasting) bronchitis. Chronic bronchitis is inflammation of the airways. It may be part of a condition known as COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). Smoking is the most common cause of chronic bronchitis.

Wet Cough With Fever

A wet cough may also be a sign of pneumonia. Other pneumonia symptoms include fever, chills, and shortness of breath. Your phlegm may be green, yellow or bloody. See your doctor if you think you might have pneumonia. Viruses cause most cases of pneumonia and antibiotics won’t help clear the infection. Still, your doctor will run tests to check for bacterial pneumonia and evaluate how your lungs are functioning.

Smoker’s Cough

A hacking cough that involves a lot of mucus is sometimes called a smoker’s cough. It is a common sign of COPD. In COPD, you have trouble breathing because your airways are restricted. Other COPD symptoms include chest tightness, wheezing, and shortness of breath.

Sour Cough

A cough with a sour taste that lasts for two or more months may be a sign of GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease). GERD occurs when stomach contents move back up into your throat. To diagnose GERD, your doctor may test the acidity of the fluid in your throat.

Dry Cough

A dry cough occurs when you aren’t coughing up mucus. A dry cough that doesn’t seem to go away may be a sign of asthma, especially if you seem to cough mostly at night. Most people with asthma also have chest tightness, wheezing, and shortness of breath. For some people with asthma, however, a cough is the only symptom.

Bloody Cough

If you’re coughing up blood, call your doctor as soon as possible. The blood may be coming from your lungs or airways, and it may be frothy because it’s mixed with air from your lungs. A bloody cough is a sign you have a medical problem, such as an infection,chronic inflammation, or even a tumor.

Cough With Cold Symptoms

A cough may be a symptom of a cold, especially when accompanied by a stuffy nose, body aches, or a sore throat. Rest and over-the-counter medications can help you feel better. Antibiotics do not help relieve the common cold. The cough may linger longer than other symptoms.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Oct 7
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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