What Is a Wet Cough? What Are the Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment Options?

All that mucus and phlegm are telling you something.

In your everyday life, you might toss around terms like "wet" and "dry" to describe your preferred style of martini or food you feed your pets. But these adjectives also describe the type of cough you're dealing with.

Here, experts break down the meaning of a wet cough, also known as a productive cough. Learn the symptoms, potential causes, treatment options, and how it differs from a dry cough.

What Is a Wet Cough , Young woman coughing while feeling ill in bed
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What Is a Wet Cough?

According to the American Lung Association, a wet or productive cough is a type of cough that brings up mucus, which can be clear, white, yellow, green, or brown, Meilan Han, MD, a University of Michigan professor of internal medicine and spokesperson for the American Lung Association, told Health. An unproductive or dry cough, on the other hand, is phlegm-free, Janette Nesheiwat, MD, a family and emergency medicine doctor and the medical director for New York City-based CityMD, told Health.

What Does a Wet Cough Feel and Sound Like?

The mucus plays a major role in how your cough feels. Wet coughs generally occur when there's inflammation within the lungs, causing an increase in mucus production, said Dr. Han. In some cases, you may even have trouble breathing due to the extra phlegm, Dr. Han added. With a dry cough, however, you might notice a tickling sensation in your throat before you start coughing, and it may feel dry or irritated afterward.

The sound of your cough can also tell you if it's wet or dry. A wet cough typically sounds like something's rattling in your chest. If your healthcare professional listens to your lungs with a stethoscope, they might hear crackles, wheezing, or rales—as well as small clicking, bubbling, or rattling sounds when you inhale, said Dr. Nesheiwat. A dry cough, meanwhile, can come with a hoarse or "hacking" sound.

What Causes a Wet Cough?

As defined by the American Lung Association, in general, a cough is your body's way of removing irritating substances, such as smoke, dust, or chemicals, out of your airway, said Dr. Han. In the case of wet coughs, the irritant your body wants to expel is mucus, since having too much phlegm in the lungs can cause shortness of breath. The common cause of mucus build-up is inflammation or irritation due to a viral or bacterial infection, explained Dr. Nesheiwat.

More specifically, acute wet coughs, which come about suddenly and last less than three weeks, may be brought on by a viral illness, such as the flu, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), COVID-19, or the common cold, said Dr. Nesheiwat. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, infections such as bacterial and viral pneumonia cause the air sacs in the lung to get filled with pus or fluid and can result in rattling wet coughs. These infections can also result in bronchitis, according to the American Lung Association, which is an inflammation of the lining of the bronchial tubes that often develops after a cold or respiratory infection clears, added Dr. Han.

On the other hand, wet coughs lasting at least eight weeks are considered chronic, as defined by the American Lung Association, and can be the result of chronic bronchitis. One common cause of chronic bronchitis is cigarette smoking, said Dr. Han.

The American Lung Association states that bronchiectasis, a condition sometimes marked by irreversible damage to the walls of the bronchial tubes, can also bring on a wet cough. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, bronchiectasis is linked with cystic fibrosis, but people with certain immunodeficiency or autoimmune disorders or chronic lung conditions such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) may also be at risk, Dr. Han said.

How Is a Wet Cough Treated?

The best course of action for your wet cough depends on the cause. Phlegmy coughs brought on by acute viral infections should improve on their own in a few weeks. Taking over-the-counter medications containing expectorants, such as the ingredient guaifenesin, make the mucus easier to cough up by thinning out the mucus, according to the National Library of Medicine's MedlinePlus.

Some home remedies might help ease the cough, too. "I like to recommend to my patients hot tea with honey, a hot mist humidifier, and cough drops," said Dr. Nesheiwat. The antioxidant-rich tea can reduce inflammation, the honey may help ease the cough, and the humidifier may thin out your mucus, Dr. Nesheiwat explained.

To ease wet coughs caused by chronic bronchitis, your healthcare professional may suggest taking cough suppressants before bedtime so you can snooze peacefully through the night. If you also have allergies, asthma, or COPD, they may recommend the use of an inhaler to curb the inflammation and open the narrow passages in your lungs.

What Should You Do If Your Wet Cough Doesn't Go Away?

If your wet cough isn't improving or gets worse after a few weeks, see your healthcare professional. Also let them know if your stubborn cough is paired with wheezing, fever, and/or chills.

An X-ray may be needed to check for pneumonia, which can be serious for some older adults and people with heart failure or chronic lung problems. If you're dealing with a bacterial infection, your healthcare professional may prescribe antibiotics to treat it, said Dr. Nesheiwat.

Preventing a wet cough means safeguarding yourself as best as possible from respiratory infections. Dr. Nesheiwat pointed out a few simple steps to reduce your risk. "We can prevent infection by getting your flu shot, your COVID shot, and your booster if eligible," Dr. Nesheiwat said. "Keep your hands washed and clean, and wear your mask indoors in crowded public areas with poor ventilation."

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