A wet cough is often a sign of a bacterial or viral infection. Most causes won’t require treatment. Available treatments include medications and lifestyle changes, some of which aren’t appropriate for children.
Coughing is a symptom of many conditions and illnesses. It’s your body’s way of responding to an irritant in the respiratory system.
When irritants like allergens, dust, pollution, or smoke enter your airways, specialized sensors send a message to your brain, and your brain is alerted to their presence.
Your brain then sends a message through the spinal cord to the muscles in your chest and abdomen. When these muscles rapidly contract, it pushes a burst of air out through your respiratory system. This burst of air, or cough, helps push out harmful irritants.
Coughing is an important reflex that can help remove harmful irritants that may sicken you or make it harder to breathe. When you’re ill, a cough can also move mucus (phlegm) and other secretions out of your body to help you clear your airways, breathe easier, and heal faster.
A wet cough, also known as a productive cough, is any cough that produces mucus. It may feel like you have something stuck in your chest or the back of your throat. Sometimes a wet cough will bring mucus into your mouth.
A wet cough indicates that your body is producing more mucus than normal.
Did you know?
Coughing is often worse at night because mucus collects at the back of your throat when you lie down, further triggering your cough reflex.
Wet coughs most often result from infections by microorganisms, such as bacteria or viruses. This includes the microorganisms that cause a cold or the flu.
Your entire respiratory system is lined with mucous membranes. Mucus performs many beneficial functions in your body, like keeping your airways moist and protecting your lungs from irritants.
When you’re dealing with an infection like the flu, however, your body produces more mucus than usual. It does this to help trap and expel the organisms causing infection. Coughing helps you get rid of all the excess mucus that gets stuck in your lungs and chest.
There are other reasons why your body may produce more mucus than usual, causing you to develop a wet cough. If your wet cough has been going on for more than a few weeks, it could be caused by:
- Bronchitis: Bronchitis is inflammation of the bronchial tubes, the tubes that carry air into your lungs. Acute bronchitis is typically brought on by a variety of viruses. Chronic bronchitis is an ongoing condition, often caused by smoking.
- Pneumonia: Pneumonia is a lung infection that’s caused by bacteria, viruses, or fungi. It’s a condition that ranges in severity from mild to life threatening.
- COPD: Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a group of conditions that damage both your lungs and bronchial tubes. Smoking is the
number one causeof COPD.
- Cystic fibrosis: Cystic fibrosis is a genetic condition of the respiratory system. It’s usually diagnosed during early childhood. It causes the production of thick, sticky mucus in the lungs and other organs. All 50 U.S. states screen infants for cystic fibrosis at the time of birth.
- Asthma: Although people with asthma are
more likelyto have a dry cough, a small subset of people produce ongoing excess mucus and experience a chronic wet cough. Learn more about the asthma cough.
- Pulmonary edema: Pulmonary edema is fluid buildup in the lungs. It’s usually caused by heart failure and is a very common cause of wet cough. If you have pulmonary edema, you may cough up pink, frothy phlegm.
In children, coughs are caused by a viral infection most of the time. Asthma may also result in a cough.
All other causes of wet cough in children, such as the following, are rare:
- Whooping cough: Whooping cough presents in violent attacks of uncontrollable coughing. Children make a “whoop” sound as they gasp for air.
- Inhalation: Cough in children is sometimes caused by inhaling a foreign body, cigarette smoke, or other environmental irritants.
- Pneumonia: Pneumonia can be dangerous in newborns and young children.
To diagnose your cough, your doctor will first need to know how long it’s been going on and how severe the symptoms are.
Most coughs can be diagnosed with a simple physical exam. If your cough is long lasting or severe, or you have other symptoms like fever, weight loss, and fatigue, a doctor may want to order additional tests.
Additional testing may include:
- chest X-rays
- lung function tests
- sputum analysis, which is a microscopic look at mucus
- pulse oximetry test, which measures the amount of oxygen in your blood
- arterial blood gas test, which tests a blood sample from an artery to show the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your blood, along with your blood chemistry
Treatments for a wet cough depend on what’s causing it.
For the majority of wet coughs caused by a virus, such as a cold or the flu, treatment is unnecessary. Viruses must simply run their course. Bacterial causes require antibiotics.
If you are or your child is having trouble sleeping, you may want to use something to help lessen mucus and cough. An older 2012 study has shown that 10 grams (about 1/2 tablespoon) of honey before a child’s bedtime is a safe method to try. Keep in mind that raw honey isn’t suitable for children under 12 months old due to the risk of botulism.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that
Other possible treatments for wet cough can include:
- OTC cough medications for older children and adults
- prescription cough medications (with or without codeine, which
isn’t recommendedin cough medications for people under age 18)
- acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) for body aches and chest discomfort from cough
- steroids for coughs related to asthma
- allergy medications
- antibiotics for bacterial infections
- medications for pulmonary edema, such as diuretics and medications that can help with the heart pumping
- moist air, delivered by humidifier or steam
A dry, hacking cough is a cough that doesn’t produce mucus. Dry coughs can be painful and difficult to manage. They happen when your respiratory system is inflamed or irritated but not producing excess mucus.
Dry coughs are common in the weeks following a respiratory infection. Once the excess mucus clears, a dry cough can linger for weeks or even months.
Other possible causes of dry cough include:
- sore throat
- gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- medications, particularly angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors
- exposure to irritants, such as dust, pollution, or smoke
Consult a doctor if your cough has been going on for more than 2 weeks. You may need immediate medical attention if you’re having trouble breathing or coughing up blood, or notice a bluish skin tone.
Mucus with a foul smell can also be a sign of a more serious infection.
Call the doctor immediately if your child:
- is younger than 3 months and has a fever of 100.4ºF (38ºC) or higher
- is younger than 2 years and has a fever of 100.4ºF (38ºC) or higher for more than 1 day
- is older than 2 years and has a fever of 100.4ºF (38ºC) or higher for more than 3 days
- has a fever over 104ºF (40ºC)
- has wheezing without a history of asthma
- is crying and can’t be comforted
- is difficult to wake
- has a seizure
- has a fever and rash
Wet coughs are most often caused by minor infections. If your cough has been going on for 2 weeks or more, see a doctor. More serious causes are possible.
Treatment for your cough will depend on the cause. Since most coughs are caused by viruses, they will go away on their own with time.