Read below about productive cough, including causes, treatment options and remedies. Or get a personalized analysis of your productive cough from our A.I. health assistant. At Buoy, we build tools that help you know what’s wrong right now and how to get the right care.

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Productive Cough Symptoms

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

Associated productive cough symptoms include:

Productive Cough Causes Overview

A productive cough is commonly caused by an infection, which can range from mild to serious. It can also be caused by an underlying medical condition or a blockage of the airways.

Infections:

The body responds to infections by producing mucus, which traps invading bacteria and viruses and triggers coughing so that they can be cleared [3, 9, 10].

  • Viral infections: A viral infection of the upper airways or the lungs can lead to a productive cough [7]. Mucus produced in the airways can be coughed up, 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, 11]. Depending on the specific type of infection, they may be associated with 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 [6, 8].

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 over time can damage the airways, causing difficulty breathing along with a productive cough [12].

  • Airway inflammation: Recurring inflammation in the airways can contribute to overproduction of mucus. Bronchiectasis is one example of an inflammatory condition that can lead to excess mucus and a productive cough [13].

Mechanical productive cough causes:

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

A.I. Health Assistant Causes for Productive Cough

The list below shows results from the use of our A.I. Health Assistant by Buoy users who experienced productive cough. This list does not constitute medical advice.

  1. 1.Bronchitis

    Bronchitis is an inflammation of the bronchial tubes, the airways that carry air to your lungs. It causes a cough that often brings up mucus, as well as shortness of breath, wheezing, and chest tightness. It is typically caused by a virus.

    Symptoms resolve within 1-2 weeks.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    cough, productive cough, sore throat, wheezing, coughing up green or yellow phlegm
    Symptoms that always occur with bronchitis:
    cough
    Symptoms that never occur with bronchitis:
    nausea or vomiting
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment
  2. 2.Common Cold

    The common cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract.

    The common cold resolves within 7 to 10 days.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, headache, cough, sore throat, congestion
    Symptoms that never occur with common cold:
    being severely ill, severe muscle aches, rash, severe headache, sinus pain
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment
  3. 3.Benign Cough

    Coughing is a reflex used to keep the throat and airways clear and healthy. When it occurs without fever or other signs of infection, it is considered benign.

    Days to years

    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
  4. 4.Bacterial Pneumonia

    Bacterial pneumonia is the infection of the lungs with bacteria (as opposed to a fungus or a virus).

    1-3 weeks

    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

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  5. 5.Chronic Bronchitis

    Bronchitis is an inflammation of the bronchial tubes, the airways that carry air to your lungs. It causes a cough that often brings up mucus, as well as shortness of breath, wheezing, and chest tightness.

    Likely a lifelong condition

    Rarity:
    Uncommon
    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, cough, productive cough, wheezing, congestion
    Symptoms that always occur with chronic bronchitis:
    cough
    Symptoms that never occur with chronic bronchitis:
    nausea or vomiting
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  6. 6.Viral Pneumonia

    Viral pneumonia is inflammation (irritation and swelling) of the lungs due to infection with a virus. Community-acquired pneumonia is the most common type, which is usually acquired in public areas such as at work, school, or grocery store.

    Symptoms begin to improve within a few days.

    Rarity:
    Uncommon
    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, headache, cough, shortness of breath, loss of appetite
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  7. 7.Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (Copd)

    COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is a chronic condition of the lungs and the airways in the lungs. Damage has occured due to long-term exposure to substances that irritate and damage the lungs, such as cigarette smoke or air pollution. This damage can cause symptoms like shortness of breath, decreased exercise tolerance and cough. A common cold or other types of infection can cause symptoms to worden acutely, this is called an exacerbation.

    Often a lifelong condition

    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
  8. 8.Influenza

    Influenza, or Flu, is an infection of the airway caused by the flu virus, which passes through the air and enters the body through the nose or mouth. The symptoms are similar to those of a cold, but the flu is usually more serious.

    Most recover within 1 week but cough and malaise can persist for 2 weeks.

    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
  9. 9.Post - Infectious Cough

    Post-infectious upper airway cough is a condition that can develop as a direct result of a previous infection of the airways. In adults, this is the most common cause of chronic (persistent) cough.

    2 weeks with treatment.

    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

Some cases of productive coughs need to be evaluated by a medical provider [3, 6, 8, 11]. A bacterial infection will need antibiotic treatment. If the cough is accompanied by difficulty breathing, oxygen therapy or inhaled medications may be required. If the cough has lasted for a long time, you may also undergo testing to see if an underlying medical condition is responsible.

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 [1, 13].

In some cases, even though emergency treatment isn't necessary, you may need medical evaluation.

Make an appointment with your doctor if:

  • Your cough has lasted for more than a week.
  • You have had weight loss and/or night sweats.
  • You have had known exposure to a person with active tuberculosis infection.
  • You have a known respiratory condition with a worsening cough [1, 6, 8].

Your medical provider may prescribe one or more of the following treatments, depending on the cause of the productive cough symptoms:

  • An oral or inhaled medication to reduce inflammation and open up the airways [6, 12, 13].
  • Short-term antibiotics for a bacterial infection of the airways and/or lungs [3, 6, 8, 11].
  • Chest physical therapy to help clear the airways [14, 15].
  • Long-term antibiotics may be prescribed for certain chronic conditions to prevent future infections [5, 6, 8].

Some home treatments may help with productive cough symptoms that include:

  • Guaifenesin/mucinex: An over the counter medication that will thin your mucus, making it less bothersome and easier to cough up [1, 13].
  • Drinking lots of water: Staying hydrated will also help keep your mucus thin, making it easier to clear [1, 3].
  • Dextromethorphan: An over the counter medication that will help you cough a little less often by suppressing your cough reflex [16].
  • Honey: Can be used to improve productive cough symptoms in children [17].
  • Cutting back on smoking or quitting completely (cigarettes or other substances): Many causes of productive cough symptoms will improve after smoking cessation [3, 12].

FAQs About Productive Cough

Here are some frequently asked questions about 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 [1]. 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 [3, 9, 10].

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 be transmitted to other people [5, 6, 8]. 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 be 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 [2]. 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

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

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions, try our productive cough symptom checker to find out more.

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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 had symptoms persist for:

    • 32% Less Than a Week
    • 23% Two Weeks to a Month
    • 18% Over a Month
  • People who have experienced productive cough were most often matched with:

    • 33% Bronchitis
    • 33% Common Cold
    • 33% Benign Cough
  • Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from visits to the Buoy AI health assistant (check it out by clicking on “Take Quiz”).

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References

  1. Ho T. Hoarseness. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Published October 30, 2016. MedlinePlus Link.
  2. Lechtzin N. Cough in Adults. Merck Manual Consumer Version. Updated May 2018. Merck Manual Consumer Version.
  3. That Nagging Cough. Harvard Medical School: Harvard Health Publishing. Updated August 13, 2018. Harvard Health Publishing Link.
  4. Sylvester DC, Karkos PD, Vaughan C, et al. Chronic Cough, Reflux, Postnasal Drip Syndrome, and the Otolaryngologist. International Journal of Otolaryngology. 2012;2012:564852. NCBI Link.
  5. Morice AH, McGarvey L, Pavord I. Recommendations for the Management of Cough in Adults. Thorax. 2006;61(Suppl 1):i1-i24. NCBI Link.
  6. Campbell IA, Bah-Sow O. Pulmonary Tuberculosis: Diagnosis and Treatment. BMJ. 2006;332(7551):1194-1197. NCBI Link.
  7. Tesini BL. Common Cold. Merck Manual Consumer Version. Updated September 2018. Merck Manual Consumer Version.
  8. Tuberculosis (TB). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated March 17, 2016. CDC Link.
  9. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Mucus. The Encyclopaedia Britannica. Updated November 3, 2017. The Encyclopaedia Britannica Link.
  10. Farzan S. Cough and Sputum Production. Walker HK, Hall WD, Hurst JW, eds. In: Clinical Methods: The History, Physical, and Laboratory Examinations. 3rd ed. Boston, MA: Butterworths; 1990. NCBI Link.
  11. Bronchitis. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. NHLBI Link.
  12. Wise RA. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (Chronic Bronchitis; Emphysema). Merck Manual Consumer Version. Updated November 2016. Merck Manual Consumer Version.
  13. Bronchiectasis. American Lung Association. American Lung Association Link.
  14. Field JB. Chest Physical Therapy (Chest Physiotherapy). Merck Manual Consumer Version. Updated December 2017. Merck Manual Consumer Version.
  15. Chest Physical Therapy. Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. CFF Link.
  16. Dextromethorphan. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Published February 15, 2018. MedlinePlus Link.
  17. Ashkin E, Mounsey A. A Spoonful of Honey Helps a Coughing Child Sleep. Journal of Family Practice. 2013;62(3):145-147. NCBI Link.