Coughing can involve an involuntary reflex that kicks in when your body attempts to remove irritants, or coughing can be done voluntarily. It can be a symptom of illness or due to an obstruction in the airway.

Coughing usually occurs because of an irritation in your throat or airway. When this occurs, the nervous system sends a message to your brainstem. Your brainstem responds by telling the muscles in your chest and abdomen to contract and expel a burst of air, producing a cough.

A cough protects your body from irritants such as:

  • mucus
  • smoke
  • allergens, such as dust, mold, and pollen

Keep reading to learn about different types of coughs and the illnesses or conditions that may cause them.

Coughing is a common symptom of many types of medical conditions and illnesses. You may be able to determine the cause of your cough by its characteristics.

Coughs can be described by:

  • Behavior or experience: When and why does the cough happen? Does it occur at night, after meals, or during exercise?
  • Characteristics: How does your cough sound or feel? Hacking, wet, or dry?
  • Duration: How long have you had your cough? Has it been less than 2 weeks or more than 8 weeks?
  • Associated effects: Do you have other symptoms such as vomiting, urinary incontinence, or sleeplessness?
  • Grade: How bad is it? Is it annoying, persistent, or debilitating?

Sometimes, an obstruction in your airway may trigger your cough reflex. If you or your child has swallowed something that may be blocking the airway, seek immediate medical attention.


If you notice any of these signs in your child, call 911 or your local emergency services immediately and perform the Heimlich maneuver or begin CPR.

Signs of choking can include:

  • bluish skin
  • loss of consciousness
  • inability to speak or cry
  • wheezing, whistling, or other odd breathing noises
  • weak or ineffective cough
  • panic

Note that the maneuver for babies (less than 12 months old) who are choking is different. Learn how to help a choking baby.

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A wet cough is also referred to as a productive cough because it commonly involves bringing up mucus from the lungs.

If you are experiencing a wet cough, it may feel like there’s an object in the back of your throat. It may also feel like something is dripping into your throat or chest. Some of your coughs may bring mucus up into your mouth.

The following conditions can cause a wet cough:

The duration of your cough may be a big clue as to its cause. Wet coughs can be acute, lasting for fewer than 3 weeks, or chronic, lasting more than 8 weeks in an adult.

Wet coughs are often accompanied by other symptoms such as:

  • runny nose
  • postnasal drip, or the excess mucus that drips from your nose into your throat
  • fatigue

Wet coughs sound wet because of the moisture present when mucus comes up from your respiratory system.

In situations where babies, toddlers, and children have wet coughs, the coughs are nearly always caused by either a cold or the flu.

Remedies for a wet cough

  • Adults: Adults can use over-the-counter (OTC) cough and cold medications for acute wet coughs, and some people may use honey to ease cough symptoms.
  • Babies and toddlers: A cool mist humidifier can help relieve dryness in the surrounding air. It may also be helpful to use saline drops in your child’s nasal passages and then use a bulb syringe to clean the nose. Do not give any type of OTC cough or cold medication to babies or toddlers under age 2. It’s also not safe to give honey to children under age 1 due to the risk of infant botulism.
  • Children: A clinical trial found that giving 1 1/2 teaspoons of honey a half-hour before bedtime can reduce cough and improve sleep in children ages 1 and older. You can also use a humidifier during the night to keep the air moist. You should speak with your doctor first if you want to use any OTC cough and cold medications as a treatment.

If your cough persists for more than 3 weeks, you may need to talk with a doctor about other treatments. A child’s wet cough is considered chronic after 4 weeks.

A dry cough is a cough that doesn’t cause any mucus to come up. It may feel like you have a tickle in your throat. This can trigger your cough reflex and cause hacking coughs.

Dry coughs can be challenging to manage, and they may turn into long coughing fits. Dry coughs typically occur when there is inflammation or irritation in the respiratory tract, but there isn’t very much or any mucus to cough up.

Dry coughs can be caused by upper respiratory infections, including a cold or the flu.

Dry coughs may linger for several weeks or until a cold or the flu has run its course. Other potential causes of dry cough can include:

COVID-19 and dry cough

A dry cough is a common symptom of COVID-19.

If you’re sick and think you may have COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend the following:

  • Stay home and avoid public places.
  • Isolate from your family members and pets as much as possible.
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes.
  • Wear a mask if you have to be around other people.
  • Stay in touch with a doctor.
  • Call ahead if you end up seeking medical attention.
  • Wash your hands often.
  • Avoid sharing any personal or household items with other people.
  • Disinfect common surfaces often.
  • Monitor your symptoms.

When it’s an emergency

If you experience any of the following symptoms, seek emergency medical attention:

  • trouble breathing
  • heaviness or tightness in the chest
  • bluish lips
  • confusion
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Visit this resource page for more information about COVID-19.

Remedies for a dry cough

Remedies for dry cough can depend on its cause.

  • Adults: If you have a dry cough, throat lozenges, cough suppressants, staying hydrated, or using a humidifier may provide some relief.
  • Babies and toddlers: In babies and toddlers, dry coughs don’t usually require treatment. A humidifier may help make them feel more comfortable. For relief from croup, you can bring your child into a bathroom full of steam or outside in the cool night air.
  • Older children: You can use a humidifier to help prevent their respiratory system from becoming too dry. Older children may be able to use cough drops to soothe their sore throats.

If you have symptoms such as heartburn or pain in addition to a dry cough, you should speak with a doctor. You may need a prescription for antibiotics, asthma medications, or antacids, or you may need further testing to determine the cause of your cough. If you are taking any supplements or medications, make sure that you tell the doctor about them.

If a child’s cough continues for longer than 2–3 weeks, speak with your doctor to determine possible causes. Your child may need a prescription for antibiotics, asthma medications, or antihistamines.

A paroxysmal cough is a cough that’s characterized by intermittent attacks of violent, uncontrollable coughing. A paroxysmal cough feels exhausting and painful. People with a paroxysmal cough often experience difficulty breathing. They may even vomit.

Pertussis, which is also known as whooping cough, produces violent fits of coughing. This condition is caused by an atypical bacterial infection. A pertussis cough can turn into a paroxysmal cough during the second stage of the illness when coughing episodes occur more frequently, especially at night.

During whooping cough attacks, people may make a “whoop” sound as they cough. This happens when they release all the air from their lungs.

Babies have a higher risk of contracting whooping cough than adults, and they may experience serious complications from it. Whooping cough is very serious and may even be life threatening for babies.

For children ages 2 months and older, getting vaccinated is the best way to prevent contracting pertussis.

While whooping cough frequently causes paroxysmal cough, other possible causes include:

Remedies for a paroxysmal cough

People of all ages need to have antibiotic medications to treat whooping cough.

Since whooping cough is extremely contagious, any family members or caregivers of someone who has whooping cough should also be treated. Treating whooping cough as early as possible will provide the best chance for a good outcome.

Other remedies for a paroxysmal cough include:

  • using a cool mist vaporizer to loosen any mucus that’s present
  • reducing irritants in the home, such as dust or smoke
  • eating small, frequent meals to reduce the chance of vomiting
  • drinking lots of fluids to prevent dehydration

What does a hacking cough mean?

A hacking cough isn’t really a type of cough, but a description of the sound of the cough. Some people describe a cough that is loud, rough, and hoarse as “hacking.”

People often think of hacking coughs as dry coughs. Dry hacking coughs are often due to:

But hacking coughs can also bring up mucus, depending on the cause.

For example, bronchitis often causes a hacking cough that brings up yellow-gray mucus. In children, a productive hacking cough may be a sign of pertussis.

Sometimes, a hacking cough might persist even after successfully treating the underlying condition. In such cases, a doctor might recommend speech therapy or other treatments.

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Croup is most commonly caused by a viral infection and occurs most often in children ages 5 and younger.

Croup causes the airway to swell and become irritated. Young children already have narrower airways, so when swelling further narrows the airway, it can become difficult for them to breathe.

Croup causes a distinctive “barking” cough that sounds similar to a seal. It also causes swelling in and around the voice box, which can lead to raspy breathing sounds or a raspy voice.

Because croup causes breathing difficulties, it can create a concerning situation for both children and parents. Children may:

  • have difficulty breathing
  • make high pitched noises during inhalation
  • breathe very rapidly

In severe cases of croup, children’s skin may become pale or bluish.

Remedies for a croup cough

Croup usually passes on its own without treatment. Home remedies can include:

  • placing a cool mist humidifier in the child’s bedroom
  • bringing the child into a steam-filled bathroom for up to 10 minutes
  • taking the child outside so they can breathe in cool air
  • taking the child out for a car ride with the windows down to let in the cooler air
  • giving children’s acetaminophen (Tylenol) to treat a fever
  • making sure that the child gets plenty of rest and fluids

A doctor may also recommend using a nebulizer breathing treatment to help open the airway. In severe cases, a doctor may prescribe a steroid to reduce inflammation.

Often, coughs do not require a doctor’s visit. Whether you need to see a doctor depends on what type of cough you have and how long you have had it, as well as your age and health.

Those who are living with certain lung diseases, such as asthma and COPD, may need earlier or more frequent treatment.

Children who are experiencing a cough should see a pediatrician or another healthcare professional if they:

  • have a cough that continues for more than 3 weeks
  • have a prolonged or high fever
  • become so out of breath that they can’t talk or walk
  • turn bluish or pale
  • are dehydrated or unable to swallow food
  • are extremely fatigued
  • make a “whoop” sound while coughing violently
  • are wheezing in addition to coughing

When it’s an emergency

Call 911 or your local emergency services if your child:

  • loses consciousness
  • cannot be awakened
  • is too weak to stand
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Adults who are experiencing a cough should see their doctor if they:

  • have a cough that lasts for more than 3–8 weeks
  • cough up blood
  • have a fever above 100.4°F (38°C)
  • are too weak to talk or walk
  • are severely dehydrated
  • make a “whoop” sound while coughing violently
  • are wheezing in addition to coughing
  • have daily acid reflux or a cough that interferes with sleep

When it’s an emergency

Call 911 or your local emergency services if an adult:

  • loses consciousness
  • cannot be awakened
  • is too weak to stand
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There are many types of coughs. The specific characteristics, severity, and duration of a cough may help pinpoint the cause. Coughing is a symptom of many illnesses and can be caused by a variety of conditions.

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