What Is a Productive or Non-Productive Cough?

Different symptoms require different treatments

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 non-productive 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 non-productive. Here are the key differences between the two.

Non-Productive Coughs

A non-productive cough is one that does not bring up any mucus or other secretion. Also known as a dry cough, a non-productive cough often is caused by some sort of irritation in the throat. Many people with describe the irritation as a "tickling" or "scratchy" sensation.

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 infection can trigger a non-productive cough, although these illnesses can cause a productive cough as well. Less commonly, heart failure, a collapse lung, or lung cancer can manifest with a persistent dry cough.

See a doctor if a dry cough is persistent and is not relieved with cough medications. This is especially true if there is fever, shortness of breath, wheezing, rapid breathing, rapid heart rate, or unexplained weight loss.

Productive Coughs

A cough is defined as productive when it brings up (produces) mucus or some sort of fluid, including blood.

If you have such a cough, your doctor 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 more than a week or two, call your doctor, especially if there is a fever, greenish-yellow phlegm, and shortness of breath

You should also call a doctor if you cough up pink or bloody phlegm. The condition, known as hemoptysis, may not be serious if there is a little pink. However, if there is a lot of blood or the bleeding won't stop, call 911 or seek emergency care.

Relieving a Cough

Clearly the first step in treating a cough is finding the right cough medicine. Depending on the type of cough you have, the choice will vary.

For a dry cough, a cough suppressant containing dextromethorphan can usually do the trick. They are available both in lozenge and syrup forms.

For a productive cough, a cough suppressants can make things worse if you have mucus in your airways and can't get it out. In some cases, it can turn into a more serious illness like pneumonia.

Many cough suppressants also contain codeine, which can be harmful if taken in excess or for prolonged periods. When combined with alcohol or other depressants, high codeine doses can cause respiratory distress and even death.

For a productive cough, a safer alternative may be 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 expectorant that's safe and right for you.

Other Remedies

A cough can be irritating whether it's productive or not. If you have of a garden-variety cough from a cold that doesn't require medical care, there are some at-remedies you can also try:

  • Use a humidifier. Dry air can irritate an existing cough. Alternately, you can stand in a steamy, hot shower or breathe in moist air from a simmering (not boiling) pot of water.
  • Coat your throat with honey. This simple home remedy has antibacterial properties and can help soothe an irritated throat.  
  • Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of clear liquids throughout the day to replace lost fluids. You can also sip herbal tea or a cup of hot water with lemon and honey.
Reasons for a Persistent Cough
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