Medical News Today: Wet coughs: What to know

A wet cough is a type of cough that brings up fluid, such as phlegm. This is the opposite of a dry cough, which does not produce any fluid.

In some cases, the type of cough a person has can help indicate its cause. This is because some underlying conditions produce mainly wet coughs, while others produce mainly dry coughs.

Read on to learn about some other differences between wet and dry coughs, as well as their potential causes. This article also outlines the various treatment options available for a wet cough.

What is a wet cough?

a woman doing a wet cough into her hand .Share on Pinterest
A person with a respiratory infection may experience a wet cough.

Coughing is a reflex that occurs in response to irritation in the throat or lungs. It is the body's way of removing irritants such as fluid and phlegm.

A wet cough occurs when fluid in the airways triggers the coughing reflex. Another name for a wet cough is a productive cough, since it produces phlegm.

A wet cough can occur for a variety of reasons. Some potential causes include:

  • respiratory infections
  • chronic lung conditions
  • a heart condition

Sometimes, a wet cough is accompanied by other symptoms, such as:

  • shortness of breath
  • wheezing
  • bubbling, popping, or rattling sounds, called "crackles"
  • continuous, low-pitched, snore-like sounds, called "rhonchi"
  • pink tinged phlegm

These symptoms can provide a clue as to what is causing the wet cough.

Wet cough vs. dry cough

Various disease processes affect the lungs in different ways. A wet cough indicates that there is fluid in the airways. With a dry cough, however, there is little to no fluid in the airways. Therefore, a dry cough does not produce phlegm.

Some conditions may produce either a wet cough or a dry cough. Other conditions may produce mainly one or mainly the other, but with both potentially present.

Causes of a wet cough

Some typical causes of a wet cough include:

A respiratory infection

A wet cough often occurs as a result of a respiratory infection. Various types of respiratory infection can lead to an increase in mucus, including:

Other potential symptoms of a respiratory infection include:


The bronchial tubes carry air in and out of the lungs. Bronchiectasis is a condition in which the surface tissue of the bronchial tubes becomes thick, floppy, and scarred, with a widening of the tube diameter as a result of chronic inflammation.

This results in excess mucus production, which can trigger a wet cough. Excess mucus production, leading to a buildup within the bronchial tubes, also increases the risk of a lung infection.

Some other potential symptoms of bronchiectasis include:

  • wheezing
  • breathlessness
  • fatigue
  • coughing up blood or blood stained phlegm
  • chest pain
  • joint pain
  • clubbing of the fingertips

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is an umbrella term for a group of chronic and progressive lung conditions. Some of these include:

Some forms of COPD cause damage to the tiny air sacs within the lungs, while others affect the bronchial tubes, the bronchioles, or both.

Some symptoms of COPD include:

  • a wet cough
  • wheezing
  • shortness of breath
  • tightness in the chest

Congestive heart failure

Congestive heart failure (CHF) occurs when the heart has difficulty pumping blood throughout the body. When this ineffective pumping occurs on the left side of the heart, it causes fluid to leak into the air sacs within the lungs. The result is a wet cough, crackles, and wheezing.

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), CHF may produce pink tinged mucus. Some additional symptoms may include:

  • shortness of breath
  • fatigue
  • swelling of the legs or feet, due to right sided heart failure causing poor circulation

Causes of a dry cough

A dry cough differs from a wet cough in that it does not produce any fluid or mucus. It generally develops in response to irritation or inflammation of the airways.

Some common causes of a dry cough include:

  • gastroesophageal reflux disease
  • asthma
  • pulmonary fibrosis
  • certain medications


People with a persistent wet cough may seek treatments to suppress it. However, suppressing a wet cough can lead to a buildup of mucus in the air passages of the lungs. This can lead to further complications, such as breathing difficulties and infection.

Instead of suppressing it, wet cough treatments typically aim to improve cough efficiency, thereby helping people clear the airways.

Other treatments aim to clear phlegm and associated irritation in the back of the throat.

If the cough is due to an underlying medical condition, a doctor will prescribe specific treatments for that condition.

Treatments to improve cough efficiency and clear phlegm

Some of the treatments below help improve cough efficiency. Others decrease mucus in the back of the throat, thereby reducing the need to cough.

Expectorants and mucolytics

Expectorants and mucolytics are medications that thin the mucus and make it less sticky. This makes it easier for people to cough it up.

These medications work best for people who have a wet cough but are having difficulty getting the phlegm up.

Airway clearance devices

Airway clearance devices, such as the oscillating positive expiratory pressure (PEP) device, use pressure and vibration to help shift phlegm from the airways during exhalation. This helps improve cough efficiency.

A 2014 review investigated the efficacy of PEP therapy in the treatment of stable bronchiectasis. The review included seven studies involving a total of 146 participants. The researchers found that PEP therapy improved cough effectiveness and sputum expectoration when compared with no treatment.

Gargling with salt water

Gargling with salt water is an easy home remedy that may help alleviate a wet cough. The salt water may decrease mucus in the back of the throat, thereby reducing the need to cough.

A range of different salt water recipes are available. Most, including that of the American Dental Association, recommend mixing half a teaspoon of salt with 8 ounces of warm water. People should consider gargling this a few times per day to reduce phlegm.

Specific treatments

The treatment options for a wet cough also depend partly on the cause. Some more specific treatments include:


Antibiotics are helpful for a wet cough that occurs due to a bacterial infection.

One 2017 review found that taking appropriate antibiotics helps improve the resolution of a chronic wet cough among children with bacterial bronchitis.

Medications to treat CHF

People who experience a wet cough due to CHF may receive drugs called diuretics, which help relieve fluid retention. This, in turn, can reduce the amount of fluid in the lungs, which can help alleviate a wet cough.

People who have CHF may also receive drugs to:

When to see a doctor

In some cases, a wet cough may signal a serious underlying health condition, such as a lung or heart disease. If a person is in any doubt as to the cause of a wet cough, they should make an appointment to see their doctor.

People should see a doctor as soon as possible if they experience any of the following symptoms alongside a cough:

  • foul-smelling phlegm
  • green, yellow, or pink tinged phlegm
  • coughing up blood
  • swelling in the legs, feet, or ankles
  • a wet cough that lasts more than a few days
  • significant fever or chills

People who experience the following symptoms should seek emergency medical attention:

  • bluish skin or nails
  • labored breathing
  • confusion or loss of consciousness
  • chest pain


A wet cough occurs as a result of excess fluid or mucus in the airways. A range of conditions can cause a wet cough, including respiratory infections, chronic lung conditions, and CHF.

Once a doctor has diagnosed the underlying cause of a wet cough, a person can begin appropriate treatment.

The treatment will depend partly on the cause of the wet cough. Medications such as mucolytics and expectorants can help remove mucus from the lungs. Antibiotics can help treat bacterial respiratory infections, while specific CHF medications will be necessary to treat the symptoms of heart failure.

People should see a doctor if they are in any doubt as to the cause of their wet cough.

Original Article

Medical News Today: Is it bronchitis or pneumonia?

Bronchitis is inflammation of the bronchial tubes in the lungs, while pneumonia causes inflammation in the air sacs of the lungs, which doctors call the alveoli.

Both infections affect breathing and can cause intense pain and coughing, but there are some important differences between them.

Read on to learn more about the differences in symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and how to treat both conditions.

an infographic showing the symptoms of bronchitis vs Pneumonia


Acute bronchitis, the infectious form of which affects most people with the disease, is only very rarely fatal. Chronic bronchitis, however, can slowly destroy lung function and may become life threatening.


Bronchitis is the inflammation of the bronchial tubes, which carry air from the trachea, or windpipe, into and through the lungs.

Acute bronchitis has distinct forms that vary, depending on the causes:

  • Viral bronchitis: Viral infections cause most cases of bronchitis. A person may develop a cough or trouble breathing after a virus, such as the common cold or flu.
  • Bacterial bronchitis: Bacterial infections can also cause bronchitis. A person may suddenly develop breathing difficulties or notice breathing problems following another illness.
  • Fungal infections occasionally cause bronchitis.
  • Other causes: Besides infection, exposure to substances that irritate the lungs, such as tobacco smoke, dust, fumes, vapors, and air pollution can also cause bronchitis.

Chronic bronchitis causes ongoing inflammation of the airways. It is a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).


The symptoms of bronchitis are similar, regardless of which type causes the disease. However, chronic bronchitis does not go away, although symptoms can wax and wane.

Viral and bacterial bronchitis typically last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. Some symptoms include:

  • severe coughing, often producing mucus
  • clear, green, or yellow mucus
  • fever or chills
  • wheezing or trouble breathing, especially when lying down
  • feelings of fullness or tightness in the chest
  • sore throat

Learn more about the symptoms of bronchitis here.


Since most cases of acute bronchitis are viral, they will not respond to antibiotics.

The following treatment options may help:

  • rest
  • drinking plenty of fluids
  • over-the-counter pain relievers
  • cough medication

A humidifier can also ease coughing at night. When a bacterial infection causes bronchitis, a doctor may recommend antibiotics.

Chronic bronchitis, on the other hand, is not curable. However, a number of interventions can help a person breathe more easily.

Some doctors might recommend inhalers, oxygen, pulmonary rehabilitation therapy, or other medications to help reduce inflammation in the airways.

Both acute and chronic bronchitis are more common in people who smoke. Quitting smoking can reduce the risk of bronchitis and prevent further damage to the airways.

Read about some home remedies for bronchitis here.

Risk factors

Chronic bronchitis can lead to serious complications, including death from heart or lung damage. Over time, a person's body may not be able to get enough oxygen from the blood, damaging organs and potentially causing other illnesses.

Chronic bronchitis also greatly increases the risk of pneumonia and can make it more difficult for a person's body to fight pneumonia.

Acute bronchitis does not usually cause serious complications. However, in a person with a weak immune system, it may lead to other infections, including pneumonia and sepsis.

Chronic lower respiratory diseases, including bronchitis, claimed 160,201 lives in the United States in 2016.


Pneumonia is a very serious health condition and can be bacterial, viral, or fungal. In 2017, there were 49,157 deaths from pneumonia in the U.S.


People with chronic medical conditions may repeatedly get pneumonia. Many people develop pneumonia after a viral infection. It is also possible to get pneumonia after bronchitis.

Some vaccinations can reduce the risk of pneumonia. The pneumococcal vaccination, for example, can help prevent pneumococcal pneumonia. This type of pneumonia is common among older people and those with weakened immune systems.


The symptoms of pneumonia are very similar to those of bronchitis. They include:

  • severe coughing, producing mucus
  • yellow, green, or blood tinged mucus
  • fever
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain that may feel sharp or stabbing
  • fatigue and low energy
  • sore throat

Some symptoms that may help distinguish pneumonia from bronchitis include:

  • confusion in some people, especially seniors
  • rapid, shallow breathing instead of wheezing
  • nausea and vomiting, particularly in children and babies
  • loss of appetite
  • chills and muscle aches


The best form of treatment for pneumonia depends on the type of pneumonia a person has. Antibiotics can treat bacterial pneumonia, and antifungals can treat fungal pneumonia, but there is no specific treatment for viral forms.

Some other strategies that may help include:

  • taking pain relievers to reduce pain and control a person's fever
  • drinking plenty of fluids
  • getting lots of rest
  • using a humidifier or steam to help loosen mucus
  • avoiding smoking

While some people find relief from cough medicine, coughing is an important way for the body to get rid of infections. An individual should talk to a doctor before using cough medicine.

Some people with pneumonia may need supportive care in the hospital. Intravenous fluids and medication for other symptoms, such as high fever, may help a person to recover faster.

Read about some home remedies that may help to ease the symptoms of pneumonia here.

Risk factors

Pneumonia ranges in severity from relatively mild to life threatening when breathing becomes very difficult. It is more dangerous in babies, young children, seniors, and people with other illnesses.

Pneumonia can decrease blood oxygen and damage the organs. People with pneumonia may die from respiratory failure, shock, sepsis, and lung abscesses.

How do people confuse bronchitis and pneumonia?

The same infections that cause bronchitis may also cause pneumonia. Moreover, chronic bronchitis is a risk factor for developing pneumonia and other serious infections.

A person with a previous diagnosis of one type of infection may still develop another infection. It is crucial to watch out for changing or worsening symptoms.

The symptoms of the two diseases are virtually indistinguishable to most people. Only a doctor can conclusively diagnose the cause of breathing difficulties.

When to see a doctor

Both bronchitis and pneumonia can be severe and life threatening. It is important not to self-diagnose either condition and take all breathing symptoms seriously.

People should see a doctor if:

  • they have difficulty breathing
  • it feels impossible to stop coughing
  • they have a very high fever
  • symptoms of pneumonia or bronchitis do not get better with treatment, or symptoms get better and then return
  • they have another chronic illness and breathing difficulties
  • a baby or young child gasps for air, has irregular breathing, or cannot catch their breath

Breathing issues can quickly worsen. If a doctor is unable to see a person with suspected bronchitis or pneumonia within a day, a person must go to the emergency room or seek urgent care.


Bronchitis and pneumonia are both highly treatable, especially when a person seeks treatment as soon as symptoms appear.

Both conditions have very similar symptoms, which is why people often confuse these diseases. In most cases, a person will not be able to tell the difference without a diagnosis from a doctor or other healthcare professional.

Prompt medical care can save lives, prevent lost time with family and friends, and help people get back to their normal life, as soon as possible.

Original Article