What Is a Wet Cough? Symptoms, Treatment, and What to Do if It Doesn't Go Away

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 those adjectives also describe the type of cough you're dealing with.

Here, experts break down the meaning of "wet cough," also known as a "productive cough" (meaning it produces phlegm or mucus). Here's how it differs from a dry cough, plus the wet cough symptoms, potential causes, and treatment options to know about.

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

A wet, 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, tells 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, tells Health.

What does a wet cough feel and sound like?

That 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, says Dr. Han. In some cases, you may even have trouble breathing due to the extra phlegm, she adds.

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 also can tell you if it's wet or dry. A wet cough typically sounds like something's rattling in your chest. If your doctor listened 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, says Dr. Nesheiwat. A dry cough, meanwhile, can come with a hoarse or "hacking" sound.

What causes a wet cough?

In general, a cough is your body's way of removing irritating substances, such as smoke, dust, or chemicals, out of your airway, says 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 that mucus build-up? Inflammation or irritation due to a viral or bacterial infection, says 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, COVID-19, or the common cold, says Dr. Nesheiwat. Bacterial and viral pneumonia can also prompt those rattling wet coughs, as can bronchitis, aka inflammation in the lining of the bronchial tubes that often develops after a cold or respiratory infection clears, adds Dr. Han.

Wet coughs that are chronic (meaning they last for more than eight weeks) can be the result of chronic bronchitis, which is a long-term inflammation of the lining of the bronchial tubes. One common cause of chronic bronchitis is cigarette smoking, says Dr. Han.

Bronchiectasis, a condition marked by irreversible damage to the walls of your bronchial tubes, can also bring on a wet cough. This condition is linked with cystic fibrosis, but folks with certain immunodeficiency disorders or autoimmune diseases or a chronic lung condition (e.g. asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) may also be at risk, she says.

How is a wet cough treated?

The best course of action for your wet cough all 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, can help thin out the mucus and make it easier to cough up.

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," says Dr. Nesheiwat. The antioxidant-rich tea can reduce inflammation, the honey may help ease the cough, and the humidifier may thin out your mucus, she explains.

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

What should you do if your wet cough doesn't go away?

If you haven't been able to shake your wet cough after a few weeks and your condition doesn't seem to be improving (or it gets worse), see your physician. You should also chat with your doctor if your stubborn cough is paired with wheezing, fever, and/or chills.

Your doctor may call for an X-ray to check for pneumonia—which can be a life-threatening condition for some older adults and folks with heart failure or chronic lung problems. If you're dealing with a bacterial infection, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to treat it, says Dr. Nesheiwat.

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

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