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Dry Vs. Wet Cough: What Is the Difference And How To Treat?

Coughing is a natural reaction for the body to clear the lungs and trachea. However, a persistent cough needs attention. But not every cough has the same medical approach. There are two categories: a wet or dry cough and treatment differs for each one as well as their causes and symptoms.

What is a dry cough?

Coughing is caused by upper airway irritation and inflammation. A dry cough does not produce mucus because the upper airways do not have as many secretory glands like the lower airways do.

A few dry coughs are momentary and can be brought on by choking, a tickling in the throat, environmental irritants, and smoking. But a chronic dry cough needs to be remedied by treating the underlying cause.

What are the causes of dry cough?

A persistent dry cough generally develops in response to irritation or inflammation of the airways. It can be caused by several possible issues:

  • Throat infections like sinusitis, tonsillitis, and laryngitis.
  • Bacterial infections like whooping cough.
  • Allergies.
  • Lung conditions such as asthma.
  • Pulmonary fibrosis.

What is a wet cough?

A wet cough, also known as a productive cough, is when phlegm (mucus or sputum) is expelled up from the lower respiratory tract. It may feel and sound like a rattling in your chest. The respiratory system is lubricated and filtered by mucus, which provides protection to the lungs and tract. So, when the body responds by overproducing mucus, it is typically in response to inflammation, infection, or disease.

What are the causes of wet cough?

A wet cough can last a week or two when brought on colds and flu but a cough lasting around eight weeks should be assessed by a doctor as there may be an underlying condition such as:

  • Lung conditions and respiratory infections.
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which is a progressive lung disease.
  • Bloody coughs may be a sign of malignancy or chronic inflammatory disease.
  • Bronchiectasis that increases the risk of lung infection.

Dry vs Wet Cough: What are the differences?

By understanding the difference between a wet cough and a dry cough, you can be more assured you are taking the right medication. The difference between a dry and wet cough is quite stark when it comes to symptoms:

Mucus Production

  • A dry cough does not expel mucus.
  • A wet cough is characterized by the presence of mucus in the respiratory system.

Associated Symptoms

  • A dry cough may occur with other symptoms such as loss of smell or taste, tickling sensation in the throat or dryness and sensitivity.
  • A wet cough can also be accompanied by a runny or blocked nose, and fatigue.

Common Causes

  • A dry cough is a reflex commonly caused by an irritation in the respiratory tract.
  • A wet cough is usually from an infection such as the flu.

Chronic Causes

  • A persistent dry cough can be caused by croup, tonsillitis, or allergies.
  • A persistent wet cough could be a result of acute bronchitis or a more serious condition like pneumonia.

How to treat a dry cough?

Having a dry cough can be uncomfortable and disruptive, but luckily there are a number of over-the-counter medications that can offer some relief.

Cough suppressants

Cough suppressants repress your cough by blocking the cough reflex. This is beneficial if your cough keeps you up at night and relieves pain.

Throat Relief

Menthol and eucalyptus lozenges have an effective cooling action that calms inflamed tissue and eases cough reflexes.

Home remedies

  • A humidifier adds moisture to dry air that can aggravate the throat. It also eases breathing and loosens mucus.
  • Soup, tea, or other nutritious warm liquids instantly soothes scratchy, sore throats.
  • Drink water to keep you hydrated, which aids the healing process.
  • Remove or avoid any triggers that exacerbate the cough.

How to treat a wet cough

For wet coughs, it is best to completely expel any mucus that the body is producing. There are two methods for wet cough treatment, namely medically or naturally.

Cough expectorants

Cough syrup expectorants are better for wet coughs than suppressants as they loosen and thin mucus in the airways, so that it can be coughed up.

Nasal sprays

Sprays treat congestion in the nose and sinuses by constricting blood vessels and restricting blood flow to the swollen tissue to reduce swelling. This helps ease breathing. A saline spray breaks down the mucus and lowers secretion from the nose.

Home remedies

  • Honey has anti-inflammatory properties that reduce inflammation, breaks up mucus, and soothes sore throats.
  • Dehumidifiers take moisture out of the air and clear up mucus secretions. But it is important that the humidity is not below 35% otherwise the air becomes dry, and it can trigger other symptoms.
  • Steam inhalation soothes irritated tissues, loosens mucus, and eases coughing. Adding a drop of mint can enhance the benefits.
  • Gargling salt water helps to reduce phlegm and mucus in the back of the throat which can lessen the need to cough. Add a half teaspoon of salt to 8 oz of warm and dissolve. Gargle a few times allowing the salt water to sit at the back of the throat before spitting out. Do not swallow.

Importance of detecting what type of cough you have

The best defense is a strong immune system that is obtained through a healthy diet, regular exercise, sufficient sleep, and adequate vitamin and mineral intake. But we are exposed to varying air pollutants, stress, allergies, and illnesses that attack the body when it's weak.

So, it is an important piece of health knowledge to be able to identify potential cough ailments so you can treat yourself and your family at home with the right methods. Applying the best treatment as soon as possible is also a preventative measure against a cough developing into a chronic condition.

However, if your cough persists after a couple of weeks and seems to be getting worse, not better, it is recommended to see a doctor. They may prescribe antihistamines, an asthma inhaler, or antibiotics depending on the nature and severity of the symptoms and if any comorbidities exist.


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