Productive Cough Symptoms, Causes & Common Questions

Understand productive cough symptoms, including 9 causes & common questions.

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Contents

  1. Symptoms
  2. Causes
  3. 9 Possible Productive Cough Conditions
  4. Treatments and Relief
  5. FAQs
  6. Questions Your Doctor May Ask
  7. Statistics
  8. Related Articles
  9. References

Productive Cough Symptoms

Coughing is triggered when the body senses that some kind of irritating substance present in the airways or lungs. In the case of a productive cough, that irritating substance is mucus, and the cough clears mucus out of the body. The mucus may be thick or thin and can be various colors. Depending on the cause, a productive cough can last only a few days or weeks or can continue for months to years.

Common accompanying symptoms of a productive cough

If you're experiencing a productive cough, it's likely to also experience:

Productive Cough Causes

A productive cough is commonly caused by an infection, which can range from mild to severe. It can also be due to an underlying medical condition or a blockage of the airways. The following details may help you better understand your symptoms and when and if you need to see a physician.

Infectious causes

The body responds to infections by producing mucus, which traps invading bacteria and viruses and triggers coughing [3].

  • Viral infections: A viral infection of the upper airways or the lungs can lead to a productive cough [1]. Mucus produced in the airways can be brought up with coughing, or mucus from the nose and sinuses can drip down the back of the throat, triggering a cough. The common cold and acute bronchitis are examples of infections that are typically viral.
  • Bacterial infections: These are usually more severe than viral infections [3,4]. Depending on the specific type of infection, they may cause a high fever, chills, difficulty breathing, and coughing up blood. Tuberculosis is one example of a bacterial infection of the lungs that causes a productive cough [2,5].

Chronic respiratory diseases

Underlying diseases of the respiratory system can cause lasting structural changes that contribute to chronic productive cough symptoms.

  • Smoking damage: The effects of smoking can damage the airways, causing difficulty breathing along with a productive cough [7].
  • Airway inflammation: Recurring inflammation in the airways can contribute to the overproduction of mucus. Bronchiectasis is one example of an inflammatory condition that can lead to excess mucus and a productive cough [8].

Mechanical causes

A structure blocking the airways can cause a buildup of mucus, resulting in productive cough symptoms. This blockage can occur with cancer (a less common cause) or a foreign body, particularly in children.

9 Possible Productive Cough Conditions

The list below shows results from the use of our quiz by Buoy users who experienced productive cough. This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

Bronchitis

Acute bronchitis is an inflammatory reaction to an infection in the airways. Most cases of acute bronchitis are caused by a viral infection, although some cases may be due to a bacterial infection.

Symptoms include an acute-onset cough with or without sputum production, low-grade fever, shortness of breat...

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Common cold

The common cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract, which includes the nose, mouth, sinuses, throat, and larynx. There are over 200 viruses that can cause upper respiratory infections, and usually the exact virus behind a cold is never known.

The common cold is, of course, very common...

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Benign cough

Benign cough means a cough that is not caused by any harmful condition or serious illness.

Postnasal drip, where mucous from the nose drains into the throat, can trigger a benign cough. So can asthma, exposure to dust or other irritants, acid reflux (heartburn or GERD,) some medications, and breathing very cold air. Postnasal drip itself can be caused by allergy, some medications, and deviated septum.

An occasional cough that brings up a slight amount of clear mucus is normal and helps clear the throat and lungs. The presence of blood or thick mucus is not normal and the person should see a medical provider.

If an unexplained cough persists for more than one month, it is important to identify the cause so that serious illness can be ruled out.

Diagnosis is made through patient history and physical examination, and sometimes through mucus testing, imaging, lung function tests, and bronchoscopy.

Treatment involves addressing any underlying causes, such as allergies. In some cases a cough suppressant may be prescribed.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: cough, cough with dry or watery sputum, severe cough

Symptoms that always occur with benign cough: cough

Symptoms that never occur with benign cough: fever, severe cough, being severely ill, coughing up blood

Urgency: Self-treatment

Bacterial pneumonia

Bacterial pneumonia is an infection of the lungs caused by one of several different bacteria, often Streptococcus pneumoniae. Pneumonia is often contracted in hospitals or nursing homes.

Symptoms include fatigue, fever, chills, painful and difficult breathing, and cough that brings up mucus. Elderly patients may have low body temperature and confusion.

Pneumonia can be a medical emergency for very young children or those over age 65, as well as anyone with a weakened immune system or a chronic heart or lung condition. Emergency room is only needed for severe cases or for those with immune deficiency.

Diagnosis is made through blood tests and chest x-ray.

With bacterial pneumonia, the treatment is antibiotics. Be sure to finish all the medication, even if you start to feel better. Hospitalization may be necessary for higher-risk cases.

Some types of bacterial pneumonia can be prevented through vaccination. Flu shots help, too, by preventing another illness from taking hold. Keep the immune system healthy through good diet and sleep habits, not smoking, and frequent handwashing.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: fatigue, cough, headache, loss of appetite, shortness of breath

Symptoms that always occur with bacterial pneumonia: cough

Urgency: In-person visit

Productive Cough Symptom Checker

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Chronic bronchitis

By definition, chronic bronchitis describes a productive cough lasting more than three months at a time and occurring at least two years in a row. Chronic bronchitis is the less deadly but more bothersome side of the broader condition known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (...

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Viral pneumonia

Viral pneumonia, also called "viral walking pneumonia," is an infection of the lung tissue with influenza ("flu") or other viruses.

These viruses spread through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

Those with weakened immune systems are most susceptible, such as young children, the elderly, and anyone receiving chemotherapy or organ transplant medications.

Symptoms may be mild at first. Most common are cough showing mucus or blood; high fever with shaking chills; shortness of breath; headache; fatigue; and sharp chest pain on deep breathing or coughing.

Medical care is needed right away. If not treated, viral pneumonia can lead to respiratory and organ failure.

Diagnosis is made through chest x-ray. A blood draw or nasal swab may be done for further testing.

Antibiotics do not work against viruses and will not help viral pneumonia. Treatment involves antiviral drugs, corticosteroids, oxygen, pain/fever reducers such as ibuprofen, and fluids. IV (intravenous) fluids may be needed to prevent dehydration.

Prevention consists of flu shots as well as frequent and thorough handwashing.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: fatigue, headache, cough, shortness of breath, loss of appetite

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (copd)

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a progressive inflammation of the lungs that makes breathing difficult. It is caused by long-term exposure to irritating gases and/or dust particles, most often cigarette smoke.

Symptoms may take years to develop. They include a chronic cough with mucus (sputum), wheezing, chest tightness, fatigue, constant colds, swollen ankles, and cyanosis (blue tinge to the lips and/or fingernails.) Depression is often a factor due to reduced quality of life.

Treatment is important because there is a greater risk of heart disease and lung cancer in COPD patients. Though the condition cannot be cured, it can be managed to reduce risks and allow good quality of life.

COPD is commonly misdiagnosed and so careful testing is done. Diagnosis is made through patient history; physical examination; lung function tests; blood tests; and chest x-ray or CT scan.

Treatment involves quitting smoking and avoiding exposure to other lung irritants; use of inhalers to ease symptoms; steroids; lung therapies; and getting influenza and pneumonia vaccines as recommended.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: fatigue, cough and dyspnea related to smoking, cough, shortness of breath, trouble sleeping

Symptoms that always occur with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (copd): cough and dyspnea related to smoking

Symptoms that never occur with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (copd): rectal bleeding

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Influenza

Influenza, or "flu," is a contagious respiratory illness caused by viruses. It is spread through the air by coughing, sneezing, or even talking.

Anyone can get the flu, but those who are very young, over 65, and/or have pre-existing medical conditions are most at risk for complications.

Symptoms include fever, chills, cough, sore throat, body aches, and extreme fatigue. The symptoms may appear very suddenly.

Flu can bring on secondary bacterial infections in the lungs or ears. Dehydration is a great concern because the patient rarely wants to eat or drink.

Diagnosis is usually made by symptoms. There are tests that use a swab taken from the nose or throat, but they are not always accurate or necessary.

Treatment consists mainly of good supportive care, which means providing the patient with rest, fluids, and pain-relieving medication such as ibuprofen. Do not give aspirin to children.

Antibiotics cannot help with the flu, since antibiotics only work against bacteria. There are anti-viral medications that a doctor may prescribe.

The best prevention is an annual flu shot.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: fatigue, headache, loss of appetite, cough, muscle aches

Symptoms that never occur with influenza: headache resulting from a head injury

Urgency: Phone call or in-person visit

Post-infectious cough

Post-infectious cough is a cough that begins with a cold or other upper respiratory infection, but does not clear up when the infection does. Instead, it lingers for three weeks or more and becomes chronic.

Most susceptible are smokers, because the irritation from the smoke provokes the cough. Other common causes are post-nasal drip, asthma, and some high blood pressure medications.

Symptoms include an irritating sensation in the throat that may provoke severe bouts of coughing. Some coughing is normal and is part of the body's mechanism to clear the air passages and expel any foreign material, but such a cough should only be brief and intermittent.

A post-infectious cough can interfere with quality of life. A medical provider should be seen for help with the condition, both to ease the symptoms and to rule out a more serious cause for the coughing.

Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, and chest x-ray, with the goal of ruling out different conditions one by one until the actual cause is found and can be treated.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: cough, congestion, clear runny nose, mucous dripping in the back of the throat, hoarse voice

Symptoms that always occur with post-infectious cough: cough

Symptoms that never occur with post-infectious cough: fever

Urgency: Phone call or in-person visit

Productive Cough Treatments and Relief

When it is an emergency

Seek emergency treatment if:

  • You are having severe difficulty breathing
  • You are coughing up large amounts of bloody sputum
  • You have a fever and chills
  • You suspect that an object has been inhaled into the airway [8,9]

When to see a doctor

Make an appointment with your doctor if:

  • Your cough has lasted for more than a week
  • You lost weight and have night sweats
  • You have been exposed to a person with active tuberculosis infection
  • You have a known respiratory condition with a worsening cough [9]

Medical treatments

Your physician may prescribe one or more of the following treatments, depending on the cause of your symptoms.

  • An oral or inhaled medication: This medication will reduce inflammation and open up the airways.
  • Short-term antibiotics: This medication will clear a bacterial infection of the airways or lungs.
  • Chest physical therapy to help clear the airways [10,11]
  • Long-term antibiotics: This medication may be prescribed for certain chronic conditions to prevent future infections [12].

At-home treatments

You can try the following treatments at home.

  • Guaifenesin/Mucinex: This is an over-the-counter medication that will thin your mucus, making it less bothersome and easier to cough up.
  • Drink lots of water: Staying hydrated will also help keep your mucus thin, making it easier to clear.
  • Dextromethorphan: An over-the-counter medication that will help you cough a little less often by suppressing your cough reflex [13].
  • Honey: This common household item be used to improve productive cough symptoms in children [14].
  • Cut back on smoking or quit completely: This includes smoking cigarettes or other substances, as many causes of productive cough symptoms will improve after smoking cessation.

FAQs About Productive Cough

Here are some frequently asked questions about a productive cough.

What is the difference between a productive and non-productive cough?

A productive cough is wet sounding and brings up mucus, while a non-productive cough is dry with no mucus. Some medical conditions can cause either a productive or non-productive cough, while some typically cause just one or the other. For example, GERD will likely cause a non-productive cough, while chronic bronchitis (a condition associated with smoking) leads to a productive cough.

Why is there mucus when I cough?

Coughing is a reflex triggered by the presence of an irritating substance in the airways, such as dust. Coughing allows the body to bring up and get rid of the irritating substance. In the case of a productive cough, there is excess mucus in the airways, which triggers a cough that then brings up the mucus.

Is a productive cough contagious?

Some causes of productive cough are contagious. For example, an infection of the airways or lungs can cause a productive cough and can infect other people. Covering your mouth will help reduce the chances of infecting other people. However, there are also some non-contagious causes of a productive cough, such as chronic bronchitis.

Is it a good sign when coughing up thick mucus?

Clearing out your airway by coughing up thick mucus may help you feel better. Certain cough medicines (guaifenesin) have "mucolytic" properties that make the mucus less thick/sticky and easier to cough out of the lungs. However, thick mucus is a sign that an infection is causing your cough, particularly if the mucus is yellow, green, or red. You should see a physician if you continue to cough up thick mucus or you have an underlying condition like chronic bronchitis and your mucus is thicker or greater in quantity than usual.

Why do I experience shortness of breath when I cough?

The body creates a cough by forcing a large amount of air out of the lungs. Since you can't inhale during this process, a long bout of coughing may leave you feeling short of breath. Some conditions can cause both a cough and shortness of breath, such as pneumonia. Seek immediate treatment if you are having severe difficulty breathing.

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Productive Cough

To diagnose this condition, your doctor would likely ask the following questions:

  • Any fever today or during the last week?
  • Have you been feeling more tired than usual, lethargic or fatigued despite sleeping a normal amount?
  • Do you currently smoke?
  • Do you have a sore throat?

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions

Please take a quiz to find out what might be causing your productive cough. These questions are also covered.

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Productive Cough Symptom Checker Statistics

People who have experienced productive cough have also experienced:

  • 14% Cough
  • 6% Congestion
  • 5% Sore Throat

People who have experienced productive cough were most often matched with:

  • 33% Bronchitis
  • 33% Common Cold
  • 33% Benign Cough

People who have experienced productive cough had symptoms persist for:

  • 32% Less than a week
  • 23% Two weeks to a month
  • 18% Over a month

Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from Buoy Assistant (a.k.a. the quiz).

Productive Cough Symptom Checker

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References

  1. Tesini BL. Common Cold. Merck Manual Consumer Version. Updated September 2018. Merck Manual Consumer Version
  2. Tuberculosis (TB). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated March 17, 2016. CDC Link
  3. That Nagging Cough. Harvard Medical School: Harvard Health Publishing. Updated August 13, 2018. Harvard Health Publishing Link
  4. Bronchitis. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. NHLBI Link
  5. Campbell IA, Bah-Sow O. Pulmonary Tuberculosis: Diagnosis and Treatment. BMJ. 2006;332(7551):1194-1197. NCBI Link
  6. Morice AH, McGarvey L, Pavord I. Recommendations for the Management of Cough in Adults. Thorax. 2006;61(Suppl 1):i1-i24. NCBI Link
  7. Bronchiectasis. American Lung Association. American Lung Association Link
  8. Ho T. Hoarseness. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Published October 30, 2016. MedlinePlus Link
  9. Field JB. Chest Physical Therapy (Chest Physiotherapy). Merck Manual Consumer Version. Updated December 2017. Merck Manual Consumer Version
  10. Chest Physical Therapy. Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. CFF Link
  11. Wise RA. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (Chronic Bronchitis; Emphysema). Merck Manual Consumer Version. Updated November 2016. Merck Manual Consumer Version
  12. Dextromethorphan. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Published February 15, 2018. MedlinePlus Link
  13. Ashkin E, Mounsey A. A Spoonful of Honey Helps a Coughing Child Sleep. Journal of Family Practice. 2013;62(3):145-147. NCBI Link
  14. Lechtzin N. Cough in Adults. Merck Manual Consumer Version. Updated May 2018. Merck Manual Consumer Version