Coughing is the body’s way of reacting to irritation in the respiratory system and of getting rid of fluid or foreign bodies from the lungs. Different causes produce different coughs which are either “dry” or “productive”.
With a dry cough there is no phlegm or mucus. A productive cough, also referred to as a chesty or wet cough, sounds low and heavy and produces phlegm or mucus.
Dry coughs can be caused by a variety of different conditions including irritation due to dry or cold air, smoke and dust or inflammation due to infection such as from flu, colds or the virus that causes Covid-19, vocal strain or asthma whereas productive coughs can be caused by congestion due to infection and allergies.
The likely cause of a cough changes, depending on how long you have had the cough.
A cough for less than 3 weeks can be caused by:
- The cold or flu virus
but may also be caused by:
- COPD (Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
A cough lasting more than 8 weeks can be caused by:
- Exposure to cigarette smoke
- Hay fever
- Medication – such as (ACE) inhibitors that reduce blood pressure
- Upper airway cough syndrome
- Poorly controlled asthma
- Poorly controlled COPD
- GORD, gastro-oesophageal reflux disease
There are other less common causes of coughs. You should visit your GP if you have a persistent cough, chest pain, unexplained loss of weight, breathing difficulties or are coughing up blood.
Treatment of a dry cough depends on the cause. Cough suppressant syrup and honey and lemon drinks or lozenges can help clam the the cough reflex. A humidifier can reduce the irritation, rehydrate the tissues and help to resolve the cough.
Productive coughs are usually treated by reducing the mucus using expectorants to loosen or thin the mucus so that it is more easily coughed up.
Cough suppressants should not be used to treat productive coughs as suppressing the cough reflex may lead to mucus remaining in the lungs instead of being coughed up which could lead to infection.