Different Types of Coughs and When to See a Doctor
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.
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.
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 in order 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 caugh 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 it 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 the productive 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. 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 are 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, 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 afterwards. 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 does 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.
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.
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
- 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.