There are all kinds of ways to have a cough, none of them fun. But whether your wet cough is gross or your dry cough has become painful, know that a cough is your body’s way of protecting itself, explains Raymond Casciari, M.D., a pulmonologist at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, CA. When you cough, “you’re helping to propel things out of your lungs that could make you sick,” says Jehan Riar, M.D., a board-certified primary care physician with Mercy Personal Physicians. Still, what’s underlying your cough can vary widely, and it helps to know what exactly you’re dealing with.
The most common types of coughs
Here’s a breakdown of the major types of cough you may experience, what each could mean, and how to get some relief already.
What it is: A dry cough typically means you’re coughing but no mucus or congestion is coming up, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That can make your airways, throat, and chest feel sore, Dr. Riar says.
Possible causes: There are a slew of potential health issues that can cause a dry cough, Dr. Riar says, including asthma, a sore throat, sinusitis, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and COVID-19.
Treatment options: The best treatment for your dry cough largely depends on what’s causing it in the first place, says Aline M. Holmes, D.N.P., R.N., a clinical associate professor at Rutgers University School of Nursing. If you have asthma and you’re struggling with a dry cough, it’s a good idea to check in with your doctor about your current treatment plan—it may need to be tweaked, Dr. Riar says. If you have a viral sore throat, you may need to simply wait it out and do supportive treatments, like using lozenges and drinking plenty of fluids, the CDC says. If you suspect GERD is behind your cough, try taking an antacid to see if you get relief.
Given that a dry cough is usually a sign that your lungs are dry and irritated, Dr. Riar recommends running a humidifier at night while you sleep to try to soothe your lungs.
And, if you have any suspicion that you may have COVID-19 (which should at least be on your radar right now), it’s a good idea to get tested, either with an at-home rapid test or PCR test.
What it is: A wet cough is also called a “productive cough,” because it usually involves producing mucus and congestion that’s either in your lungs or the back of your throat, Holmes says.
Possible causes: “A wet cough is the No.1 indicator that you have an infection in your lungs,” Dr. Riar says. “It could be pneumonia, it could be bronchitis, or it could be something else.” A wet cough isn’t always a sign of a serious infection, though. “You can get it with a chest cold,” Dr. Riar says, especially if you have an underlying lung condition like asthma or COPD.
Treatment options: The right treatment for you depends on how severe your wet cough is, Holmes says. If you’re coughing up clear mucus, it’s unlikely you have an infection, Dr. Riar says. In that case, you may be OK just keeping an eye on your symptoms and doing supportive treatments like drinking plenty of water and caffeine-free tea with honey. But, if it’s yellowish or greenish, you’ll want to see your medical care provider, Holmes says—you may need antibiotics.
What it is: Also known as a paroxysmal cough, this happens “when you get into a coughing fit that goes on and on, but you’re not bringing up anything,” Holmes says. “It can be very exhausting and painful because your diaphragm is spasming,” she adds. Some people may even throw up from coughing so hard, Dr. Riar says.
Possible causes: Pertussis, aka whooping cough, is a big potential cause of an uncontrollable cough, Dr. Casciari says, noting that he’s seen this more in adults lately. Asthma, COPD, and pneumonia can also cause an uncontrollable cough, Dr. Riar says.
Treatment options: An uncontrollable cough is not something you want to try to manage on your own. “You need to talk to your physician,” Holmes says. “It’s not usually something you can just take an over-the-counter medication for.”
What it is: A barking cough “sounds really coarse and wet,” Dr. Riar says, adding that it can “actually sound like you’re barking.
Possible causes: That barking sound happens because there is swelling in your trachea, the airway that goes from your voice box to your lungs, Holmes says. “A barking cough could be from any respiratory infection, but it’s a classic sign of pertussis,” Dr. Riar says.
Treatment options: Again, you’ll want to seek medical care for this one and ideally sooner rather than later. “You don’t want that swelling to continue or get worse,” Holmes says.
When should you seek medical care for a cough?
You’ll definitely want to see your care provider any time you have a cough that lasts for more than three weeks, Dr. Casciari. And, if you feel like your cough is interfering with your daily life, or you’re coughing up a lot of mucus or even blood, seek care sooner, he says.