The Two Kinds of Cough

The Difference Between a Productive Cough and a Nonproductive Cough

Teenage girl (13-15) coughing, close-up
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A cough is a symptom that can be caused by any number of medical illnesses or conditions. When a doctor or other medical practitioner evaluates a cough, he usually will describe it as either nonproductive or productive.

It can be helpful to understand the differences between the two, especially if you have a chronic cough and are asked if it's productive or nonproductive. Here are the most significant differences between the two.

Nonproductive Cough

A nonproductive cough is one that does not bring up any mucus or other secretion. Also known as a dry cough, a nonproductive cough often is caused by some sort of irritation in the throat—a "tickling" sensation, for example.

Swelling of the airways also can cause a dry cough. Conditions associated with this type of cough include asthma and bronchitis. Sometimes a cold, flu, or other upper respiratory illness can trigger a nonproductive cough, although these illnesses can cause a productive cough as well.

Productive Cough

cough is defined as productive when it brings up (produces) mucus or some sort of fluid, such as blood (which is one reason a doctor will be very interested in knowing what type of cough you have).

He also will want to know what the secretion looks like and how long you've had it. Most coughs caused by a cold or flu will go away after a few days. But if a cough is productive and lasts longer than a week or two, it should be evaluated by a doctor.

If you are coughing up pink, frothy secretions or blood, seek medical attention immediately. This can be a sign of a life-threatening condition.

Tips For Relieving With a Cough

Coughing is irritating whether it's productive or not. If you have a cough that you know is a symptom of a garden-variety cold and doesn't need to be evaluated by a doctor, there are things you can do to get relief at home.

Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of clear liquids throughout the day to replace fluids lost from the secretions you're bringing up.

Run a humidifier. Dry air can irritate an existing cough.

Eat a spoonful of honey. This simple home remedy has been shown to soothe a sore, irritated throat. 

Try a cough medicine. But make sure it's the right kind. Cough suppressants sometimes make things worse. If you have mucus in your airway and don't get it out, it can turn into a more serious illness like pneumonia. These medications also contain codeine, which can be dangerous if taken for extended periods of time. A safer type of cough medicine is an expectorant, which works by loosening and thinning the mucus so that it's easier to expel. Your doctor or pharmacist can point you in the direction of an over-the-counter cough medicine that's safe and appropriate for you. 

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