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Different Types of Coughs and When to See a Doctor

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Introduction to Coughs

By definition, "cough" means:

A rapid expulsion of air from the lungs typically in order to clear the lung airways of fluids, mucus, or other material. Also called tussis.

We have all had a cough at some point, and we will likely continue to get a cough every now and then for the rest of our lives.

Why Do We Cough?

A cough doesn't always mean that someone is sick. As annoying as coughing is, we cough for a reason. Coughing can be either voluntary (that is, you make a conscious decision to cough) or involuntary (your body decides to cough, and you cough by reflex).

You can cough for many different reasons. But the main goal of a cough is to clear away some type of irritation from your airway. Maybe your lungs are full of phlegm, or you are trying to stop that annoying tickle in your throat.

Different types of coughs have different sounds. The sound may help you decide whether or not you need to visit your doctor. This article will take a look at the following kinds of coughs:

  • Productive chest cough
  • Non-productive/dry cough
  • "Barking" cough
  • Whooping cough
  • Psychogenic cough
  • Reflex cough

Types of Coughs

Productive Chest Cough

A productive chest cough simply means that you are coughing up some sort of phlegm. You are productively getting rid of an irritant in your lungs. This is the type of cough where you may be able to feel the contents of your lungs moving around after each cough.

If you do, in fact, have a productive chest cough, it is important to know that you should not be taking any cough-suppressant medicine. Your body needs you to cough to get rid of the phlegm. By taking cough suppressant medicines, you would be blocking or weakening your cough reflex, and the phlegm would continue to sit in your lungs. This can lead to something more serious than the common cold, such as pneumonia.

However, you can take an expectorant cough mixture for your productive chest cough. This will help loosen up the phlegm in your lungs, making it easier for you to cough up. The more phlegm you expel from your lungs, the easier it is to breathe, and the less likely you are to develop something more serious than a cold.

Consult a doctor if your productive chest cough lasts more than seven to ten days or you begin coughing up green phlegm or phlegm that contains mucus. And because you know your body best, even if you don't have these symptoms but still feel as if you should visit your doctor, go ahead.

Non-Productive or Dry Cough

This cough is basically the opposite of the productive chest cough. You are coughing, but you are not producing any phlegm, so the cough is "unproductive." This cough is very dry-sounding, unlike the productive cough.

This type of cough is often experienced near the end of a cold when there is no longer any phlegm to be expelled. Or it may happen after exposure to certain respiratory irritants such as dust or dander.

Although the use of medications is still discouraged, as it is important to get rid of any secretions or irritants, it is safer to use cough suppressant medications for this kind of cough than for the productive cough.

"Barking" Cough

The barking cough is exactly that: a loud, dry, hoarse, bark-like cough. This type of cough is often referred to as croup (a respiratory disease caused by a viral infection). However, croup is not always the cause. A barking cough may be caused by a swollen upper respiratory tract, which may be the result of the common cold.

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This kind of cough often seems to worsen at night. Monitor this type of cough for infections and swelling that may make breathing difficult. If it becomes difficult to breathe, seek medical attention.

If you have any reason to suspect that such a cough or swelling of the upper respiratory tract is due to a foreign object in the airway, seek medical attention even if it does not seem severe. A foreign object may cause more damage if left alone.

Steroids, or in severe cases epinephrine, are medications that may be given to someone experiencing this type of cough. A home remedy for this type of cough would be inhaling moist, warm air.

Whooping Cough

Whooping cough, also called pertussis, is a very contagious bacterial disease. It is called "whooping" cough because it causes uncontrollable coughing fits that end with a "whoop" or gasping sound caused by the inhalation of air after coughing. These coughing fits can become so violent that the sufferer may vomit afterward. Other symptoms include the sufferer feeling as if they are suffocating, feeling light-headed, or fainting. A coughing fit may be followed by a period of feeling well and having no cough at all.

This bacterial infection is spread easily from person to person by droplets of saliva produced while coughing. Whooping cough can be very serious and even fatal, especially for children and babies. Therefore, it is important to protect yourself and others by covering your mouth when you cough and washing your hands often and properly.

This cough usually lasts for up to six weeks and is sometimes treated with antibiotics (which do not usually help the person with whooping cough but can help prevent them from spreading it to others). Cough suppressants or inhalers can be used. Often the disease is not treated and left to run its course. Whooping cough can cause many other complications such as fractured ribs, hernias, or pneumonia.

Luckily whooping cough can be prevented by a vaccine given to young babies, who are most at risk of death due to whooping cough. The pertussis vaccine is often given in combination with diphtheria and tetanus vaccines.

Psychogenic Cough

A psychogenic cough, also called "habit cough" or "tic" is common after a cold or other illness that causes coughing. A habit cough is not associated with other signs of illness and often stops while the person is asleep. A habit cough is more common in children than in adults. It may be a nervous habit, or it may be caused by the attention the cough gets from others.

No pharmacological treatment will work for this type of cough. If it becomes a problem and begins affecting the sufferer's life, therapy is the type of treatment needed.

Reflex Cough

A reflex cough is not due to illness. It is usually caused by an environmental irritant, such as dust and dander in the air, which causes the person to cough momentarily to clear their airway.

When to See a Doctor

The number one reason to see a doctor is that your gut feeling says to do so; you know your body better than everyone else. If you feel you need to see a doctor, odds are you truly do.

These Symptoms Occurring With a Cough May Mean You Need Medical Attention:

  • Green, yellow, tan, or bloody phlegm, especially if it tastes bad
  • A fever over 38 degrees Celsius
  • Shortness of breath
  • Persistent cough lasting more than a month
  • Coughing that decreases your quality of life
  • Wheezing
  • Chest pain
  • Weight loss
  • Chills or night sweats
  • Heart problems

This content is for informational purposes only and does not substitute for formal and individualized diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed medical professional. Do not stop or alter your current course of treatment. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.


Rick Gilbert on July 13, 2017:

I'm 28! year's old and for the past few weeks I have had chest pain shortness of breath and two days ago I woke up with my voice about gone. I can barely talk and I have been coughing up green thick mucus that tastes really bad. I don't have larngitis but what could it be

Sarah on June 14, 2017:

I have a cough, sinus infection and ear infection. Im nearly deaf now and when i cough it tastes like beef flavored Top Raman.

Linda B on May 11, 2017:

I have been coughing for almost 4 years now. First they told me it was COPD. After taking all the test I have low COPD. Make a long store short now they tell me that it is my GERD. I did everything the doctors told me and I'm still coughting. When I eat I produce a lot of yellowish phlegm. I don't know whatelse to do. All I know is it's driving me and everyone around me crazy. It takes my breathe away too....Any answers. Thank you

Collιe on April 12, 2016:

Very нelpғυl ιnғo тнanĸ yoυ. I нave нad a coυgн ғor aвoυт 2 мonтнѕ now ιn тнe мornιngѕ I coυgн υp loтѕ oғ yellowιѕн colored pнlegм an coυgн υp a lιттle pнlegм тнroυgнoυт тнe day вυт I нave тo мaĸe мyѕelғ coυgн ιт υp. I do geт ѕнorт oғ вreaтнe нave тo вreaтнe ιn really нard an deep ғeel lιĸe I'м ѕυғғocaтιng, occaѕιonally geт lιgнт нeaded an dιzzy. Bυт тнen ѕoмe dayѕ I'м oĸay ѕo I нaven'т gone тo docтor. Any ιdeaѕ or ѕнoυld I jυѕт go тo тнe doc

Helena on August 06, 2014:

I don't know what kind of cough I have. It might be a dry+barking cough because my coughs are dry and have a VERY LOUD strange sound. Also, I always cough year round. I'm not Ill when I cough, I usually feel fine. My Dad has always smoked and sometimes goes outside to smoke, maybe that is why I cough a lot.

Amanda on November 18, 2013:

Hello, I started to notice I was having problems breathing especially when I had to do things that required pulling or picking up things, I would just almost pass out cause of the lack of oxygen I was getting and also I have this very bad cough along with the breathing problem.. the cough hurts and sometimes It can go on for hours.. I have been to the ER a few times and they took X-rays and said my lungs were clear and gave me a few different inhalers and an antibiotic and a steroid medication, none of them worked .. so this has been going on for a good 2 months now and I feel like I am constantly breathing through a straw, like I am being suffocated and it is starting to scare me.. I cannot even have a conversation with anyone because if I talk to much it takes my breath away... I am afraid I am going to stop breathing in my sleep it has gotten that bad and also the cough has gotten worse to the point my chest and my sides and my back hurts whenever I cough, it is not a regular cough, it gets to the point that I cannot stop coughing and then feel like I am going to throw up.... does anyone have any idea what this may be ?

rei on November 10, 2013:

Is warm calamansi juice good for barking cough?

Amanda on June 07, 2013:

I have had a barking cough for about three months. It just feels like a tickle so when I cough I legit sound like a seal. I don't have shortness of breath just a tickle. It is weird and I wish it would just go away. There is no fever or anything. I think I am going to try the tea and honey and see if that helps. Thanks for the info :)

Tracy B (author) from Canada on May 27, 2013:

I would personally suggest you seek another opinion until you have an answer. Sure it could be nothing serious. But then again it could be something that requires treatment.

Hello Sir on May 24, 2013:

Hello sir..My name is Gideon ...I have been coughing for more than 5 year now .When the cough starts i remove a lot of phlems a lot ..infact a lot of phlems ...My weight also decreases and i dont feel confortable at all..i have done all sort of laboratory test but all seems negetive .Please help me out with the little idea you have

shashank on March 02, 2013:

thank you....

this is some what helpful to me.

gaurav saini on January 13, 2013:

hi ..

sir actually i have cough in my throat.i think the cough not come from my chest.and i have not any phlegm.always i have irritation in my throat.and i have this type of cough last 3 month.what type of cough it can be?and by medical preventaion no relif i am feeling till now.i treated my cough by many specilist i.e.chest specilist,ENT etc.

plz help me know about type of cough and its remedies.

thanks on January 10, 2013:

Wow great post and can also check my blog at, for more info too.

Tracy B (author) from Canada on August 03, 2012:

Tea and honey is a home remedy I use for many illnesses. You can also try sitting in a steamy bathroom!!

Rohit on June 30, 2012:


I like the information bit can u tell some more home remedies for barking cough.plz.

Amanda on June 22, 2012:

Thanks, I apparently have the psychogenic cough. Always when I'm nervous.

Tracy B (author) from Canada on September 25, 2011:

Thank-you! And I am glad to hear that they were finally able to help your daughter!

slaffery from Kansas, USA on September 24, 2011:

this was a great hub and very useful. My daughter had a cough that lasted from February till almost June of this year. We had taken her several times and finally at the last visit they listened and the doctor said he could hear bronchitis in her lungs. They treated her for that and about a month later she was finally over the cough. I was really starting to get worried. I will be bookmarking this for future reference :) Voted up and useful

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