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Types of Cough: Symptoms & Causes

There are many different types of coughs but generally, these can be split into two categories. These include a productive cough, which – as the name suggests – produces mucus or phlegm, or an unproductive or dry cough, where nothing is coughed up.

Understanding the different types of coughs can help you find the best treatment. This guide will break down the types of cough you may experience, so you can learn what to look for and how to effectively treat the symptoms.

Chesty cough

Chesty coughs are a productive type of cough that produces phlegm to help clear your airways. A cough is a reflex and an attempt from your body to protect the lungs from dust and irritants.

Symptoms of this type of cough

A chesty cough may include the following symptoms:

  • The production of mucus when you cough
  • A rattling sound around your lungs.

Causes of this type of cough

  • Upper respiratory tract infection (URTI), such as a cold or flu.
  • Chest infections, often following colds or flu.
  • Other health conditions.

Read More About Chesty Coughs Here

Mucus cough

Mucus coughs produce phlegm to help clear an infection. They may feel unpleasant, but mucus serves a very important purpose. It protects your airways from irritating substances, as well as containing antibodies, enzymes, and protein to help recognise, trap, and kill invading bacteria and viruses.

Symptoms of this type of cough

The symptoms of a mucus cough include:

  • A cough that feels “wet” due to mucus or phlegm production.

Causes of this type of cough

  • Colds and flus are the most common cause
  • Allergies
  • Asthma
  • A pre-existing condition, such as COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).

Read More About Mucus Coughs Here

Tickly cough

Tickly coughs are a type of dry cough, known as an unproductive cough, as they don’t produce any mucus or phlegm. This can lead to a dry feeling and a sensation of something being stuck in your throat.

Symptoms of this type of cough

When suffering from a tickly cough, you may experience the following symptoms:

  • A cough that won’t produce phlegm or mucus
  • A dry and tickly sensation in the throat, .

Causes of this type of cough

  • Viral illnesses, such as cold and flu
  • Allergies and irritants
  • Asthma.

Read More About Tickly Coughs Here

Dry cough

Dry coughs produce no phlegm or mucus, and are categorised as an unproductive cough. These can cause irritation in your throat and result in an aching feeling in your chest muscles.

Symptoms of this type of cough

The following symptoms may indicate you have a dry cough:

  • No production of phlegm or mucus
  • A tickly sensation in the throat
  • A feeling of something being in your throat, which doesn’t clear with coughing.

Causes of this type of cough

  • Most coughs are a result of viral illnesses, like cold and flu
  • Allergies, such as hay fever
  • Smoking
  • Asthma
  • Acid reflux.

Read More About Dry Coughs Here

Persistent cough

Persistent coughs aren’t categorised as productive or unproductive. Instead, they’re identified by their duration. Most coughs will clear up within a few weeks, but coughs that last longer than three weeks are considered persistent. These coughs can have a number of causes and may be considered chronic if the cough persists for over eight weeks. If your symptoms worsen, you should contact your GP.

Symptoms of this type of cough

A persistent cough has the following symptoms:

  • A cough that lasts more than three weeks
  • Irritation, pain, and discomfort in the throat.

Causes of this type of cough

  • Long-term respiratory tract infections, such as bronchitis
  • Mucus dripping from the back of your nose into your throat, known as postnasal drip
  • Gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD), an irritation of the throat from leaking stomach acid
  • Allergic reactions to pollen, dust, or other irritants
  • Smoking
  • Asthma
  • Certain medications.

In rare cases, a persistent cough may be a sign of a more serious condition, such as cancer or heart failure.

If you have had a cough for more than 3 weeks, you should contact your GP

Children’s coughs

Children’s coughs are common and normal, with children getting an average of six to eight coughes per year when they start school. These can be especially common in the winter months and can appear in different ways, but there are some common symptoms to look out for.

Symptoms of this type of cough

A children’s cough may have the following symptoms:

  • Coughing, which may get worse at night
  • A sore throat.

Causes of this type of cough

  • Colds or viral infections
  • Allergies, such as hay fever
  • A flare-up of asthma
  • Second-hand smoke – children who live in a household with smokers are at an increased risk of catching coughs.

Read More About Children’s Coughs Here

Whooping Cough

Whooping cough is named quite literally for the ‘whoop’ sound sufferers make when drawing breath after coughing. This is especially pronounced in children. Caused by a bacterial infection, it is highly contagious, and the cough can last for one to six weeks.

You will likely need to see a GP for this type of cough. Antibiotics may be prescribed to prevent any potential spreading of the infection, but they won’t usually help your symtoms. Ibuprofen or paracetamol may soothe symptoms – as can resting and drinking plenty of fluids – but you should contact your GP with any concerns.

This type of cough has more severe symptoms in babies and children than adults, but you can experience it at any age.

Symptoms of this type of cough

  • Early cold-like symptoms, such as a sore throat, runny nose, and sneezing
  • Regular and severe bouts of coughing (usually seven to 10 days after infection)
  • A whooping sound between coughing fits
  • Cough that worsens at night
  • Coughs may be dry or produce thick mucus
  • Coughing may cause sweating and a flushed appearance
  • Vomiting after a coughing fit
  • Children may develop a bluish-purplish tinge after coughing fits due to a lack of oxygen.

Causes of this type of cough

  • A Bacterium known as Bordetella pertussis, which infects the upper airways and is spread through droplets in the air.

When to see a GP for your cough

Coughs usually clear up on their own in around four weeks and won’t require you to see a GP. However, you should seek medical advice if you experience any of the following:

For Children:

  • If your child has had a cough that has lasted longer than 3 weeks.
  • If your child’s temperature is very high, or they feel hot and shivery, they may have a chest infection.
  • If a cough continues for a long time, especially if it’s worse at night or brought on by your child running about, it could be a sign of asthma.
  • If your child is finding it hard to breathe, go to A&E or call 999 immediately as they’ll need urgent treatment in hospital.

For Adults:

  • If you’ve had had a cough for more than 3 weeks (persistent cough)
  • If your cough is very bad or quickly gets worse – for example, you have a hacking cough or cannot stop coughing
  • If you feel very unwell
  • If you have chest pain
  • If you are losing weight for no reason
  • If the side of your neck feels swollen or painful (swollen glands)
  • If you find it hard to breathe
  • If you have a weakened immune system, for example because of chemotherapy or diabetes
  • See a GP urgently if you are coughing up blood

In the event you cough up blood, see your GP right away.

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