Coughing is the body’s way of clearing foreign material or mucus from the lungs and upper airway passages or of reacting to an irritated airway. Coughs have distinctive traits you can learn to recognize. A cough is only a symptom, not a disease, and often the importance of your cough can be determined only when other symptoms are evaluated.
A productive cough produces phlegm or mucus (sputum). The mucus may have drained down the back of the throat from the nose or sinuses, from the lungs or from the stomach. A productive cough generally should not be suppressed – it helps clear mucus from the lungs. There are many causes of a productive cough, such as:
- Viral infection. It is normal to have a productive cough when you have a common cold or flu. Coughing is often triggered by mucus that drains down the back of the throat.
- Bacterial Infection. An infection of the lungs or upper airway passages can cause a cough. A productive cough may be a symptom of pneumonia, bronchitis, sinusitis, or tuberculosis or less frequently other bacterial organisms. It is suspected when the mucous is greenish/yellow
- Chronic lung disease. A productive cough could be a sign that a disease such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is getting worse or that you have an infection. COPD is common among smokers.
- Stomach acid backing up into the esophagus/throat. This type of coughing may be a symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and may awaken you from sleep. It is usually worst while lying down or early in the morning when waking up.
- Nasal discharge (postnasal drip) draining down the back of the throat. This can cause a productive cough or the feeling that you constantly need to clear your throat. Experts disagree about whether a postnasal drip or the viral illness that caused it is responsible for the cough.
- Smoking or other tobacco use. Productive cough in a person who smokes or uses other forms of tobacco is often a sign of lung damage or irritation of the throat or esophagus.
A nonproductive cough is dry and does not produce sputum. A dry, hacking cough may develop toward the end of a cold or after exposure to an irritant, such as dust or smoke. There are many causes of a nonproductive cough, such as:
- Viral illnesses. After a common cold, a dry cough may last several weeks longer than other symptoms and often gets worse at night. This is frequently due to the irriation that remains from the viral infection although occasionally may be also due to slight acid reflux as well.
- Bronchospasm. A nonproductive cough, particularly at night, may mean spasms in the bronchial tubes (bronchospasm) caused by irritation. Abrupt temperature changes can cause temporary bronchospasm when entering the wam house from the wintery cold for instance.
- Allergies. Frequent sneezing is also a common symptom of allergic rhinitis.
- Medicines called ACE inhibitors that are used to control high blood pressure. Examples of ACE inhibitors include captopril (Capoten), enalapril maleate (Vasotec), and lisinopril (Prinivil, Zestril, or Zestoretic).
- Exposure to dust, fumes, and chemicals in the work environment.
- Asthma. A chronic dry cough may be a sign of mild asthma. Other symptoms may include wheezing, shortness of breath, or a feeling of tightness in the chest. For more information, see the topic Asthma in Teens and Adults.
- Blockage of the airway by an inhaled object, such as food or a pill.
Many coughs are caused by a viral illness. Antibiotics are not used to treat viral illnesses and do not alter the course of viral infections. Unnecessary use of an antibiotic exposes you to the risks of an allergic reaction and antibiotic side effects, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, rashes, and yeast infections. Antibiotics also may kill beneficial bacteria and encourage the development of dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
What should I expect?
A careful evaluation of your health may help you identify other symptoms. Remember, a cough is only a symptom, not a disease, and often the importance of your cough can only be determined when other symptoms are evaluated. Coughs occur with bacterial and viral respiratory infections.