What Causes a Productive Cough?

A cough is your body’s way of protecting your lungs. Sometimes when you cough, you can bring up mucus, also called phlegm or sputum. When that happens, doctors call it a “wet” or "productive" cough.

When you have one, it may sound and feel like something is rattling around in your lungs. This kind of cough may happen because of an infection or another health condition.

Ask your doctor what’s going on. Ongoing coughs are one of the most common reasons people go to the doctor. The quickest way to feel better is to find out what’s making all that mucus.

There are ways to treat the things that cause productive coughs.

Cold

Viruses cause colds. You cough because your body is trying to get rid of mucus that's full of germs. You’re more likely to get a cold in cooler months. But you can get one at any time of year.

In addition to your cough, you may:

Treatment for a cold includes plenty of rest and fluids. You can ease some of your symptoms with over-the-counter medicine. But drugs can’t cure your cold.

You’ll probably get better in a 7-10 days. If you don’t, or if you get symptoms like a fever or aches, talk with your doctor.

Flu

A cough coupled with body aches could be a sign of a more serious illness. The flu, caused by the influenza virus, can have symptoms similar to a cold. But you’ll usually feel a lot worse when you have the flu. You could have:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Muscle aches
  • Serious tiredness

Treatment for the flu may include drugs that will go to work on the virus. Over-the-counter medicine can ease many of your symptoms. Check in with your doctor if your cough or fever gets worse after it gets better. Call them right away if you have a hard time breathing.

The best way to prevent the flu is with a yearly vaccine. Most people who are at least 6 months old can get one. Vaccines are even more vital if you have another health condition or if you’re 65 or older. That’s because you’re more likely to get really sick from infections like the flu.

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Acute Bronchitis

This “chest cold” usually lasts about 3 weeks. It makes you cough because the airways in your lungs swell and make a lot of mucus. This kind of inflammation usually shows up after a viral infection. But bacteria can cause bronchitis, too.

You may have some other symptoms, including:

  • Chest soreness
  • Mild head or body aches
  • Tiredness
  • Sore throat

Treatment for acute bronchitis includes fluids, rest, and over-the-counter drugs.

Your doctor probably won’t prescribe antibiotics. But if your cough keeps coming back, or if you have blood in your mucus or a hard time breathing, give your doctor a call.

Pneumonia

A lung infection -- which is what pneumonia is -- can make your air sacs fill up with fluid or pus. You may cough up a lot of green or yellow mucus. It may have blood in it. Usually, bacteria cause pneumonia. But fungal or viral infections, like the flu and COVID-19, can bring it, too.

Your symptoms may be mild or serious. Call your doctor right away if you have a:

  • Very high fever
  • Hard time breathing
  • Blue tint to your lips or fingers

What your doctor will give you for your pneumonia depends on what causes it and how sick you are. You may get over-the-counter drugs, antibiotics, or antivirals. Make sure you drink plenty of fluids. And don’t take cough medicine without checking with your doctor first.

You should also find out if you need to get a vaccine to make pneumonia less likely in the future.

Postnasal Drip

If you find yourself coughing every night, it may be a sign of postnasal drip. That’s when mucus drips down the back of your throat. The main culprits are:

Sometimes, medicine or pregnancy can cause it. Kids who get something stuck in their nose may get postnasal drip, too.

You may have other symptoms, like a sore or scratchy throat. You might also feel like throwing up.

The best way to fix postnasal drip is to find out what's causing it. If your cough lasts longer than 8 weeks, talk to your doctor. They may give you medicine or another treatment you can take at home.

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Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

You might make more mucus than normal when you have COPD. Your airways and air sacs can also stop working the right way. That’s because they get hurt or inflamed.

Smoking cigarettes is the most common cause. But it can happen because of air pollution, asthma, or your genes. You may hear COPD called emphysema or chronic bronchitis.

Other than a “smoker’s cough,” there are other signs to watch for:

  • It’s easy to run out of breath.
  • Doing something active makes you winded.
  • Your lungs whistle or squeak.
  • Your symptoms get worse with time.

Treatment can help ease your symptoms. But there’s no cure for COPD. If you smoke, quit. You may also need to take medicine to help you breathe. Lifestyle changes might help, as well. Talk with your doctor if you think you may have COPD.

Cystic Fibrosis

Your cough could be a sign of a genetic condition. If you have cystic fibrosis (CF), you can’t clear out mucus very well. Bacteria can grow inside all that phlegm. That could give you a higher chance of getting other lung infections, which can also make you cough.

Other signs of CF include:

You’ll need ongoing treatment if you have cystic fibrosis. Your doctor can teach you special ways to clear your airways. They can also give you medicine to prevent infections and help your lungs work better. In some cases, you may need surgery.

Bronchiectasis

Your airways can get loose and scarred. When this happens, mucus can get stuck. Your body coughs to move it out of your lungs. Cystic fibrosis is just one condition that leads to bronchiectasis. It can also happen after a lung infection, like pneumonia or tuberculosis. Blockages like tumors can also cause it. Sometimes, you’re born with it.

Other symptoms of bronchiectasis include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Clubbed fingers and toes
  • Serious tiredness

Treatment for bronchiectasis includes medicine, lots of fluids, and chest physical therapy (CPT). Surgery may help if the damage is in only one part of your lung.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Carmelita Swiner, MD on April 17, 2020

Sources

SOURCES:

Harvard Health Publishing: “Cracking the cough code,” “Treatments for post-nasal drip.” 

Cleveland Clinic: “How Doctors Crack the Code for Your Chronic Cough,” “Postnasal Drip, Can It Make Your Queasy?”

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: “Cough,” “Pneumonia,” “COPD,” “Cystic Fibrosis,” “Bronchiectasis.”

CDC: “CDC Features: Common Colds: Protect Yourself and Others,” “Influenza (Flu): Treatment; Who Needs a Flu Vaccine & When,” “Antibiotic Prescribing and Use in Doctor’s Offices: Chest Cold (Acute Bronchitis),” “Pneumonia: Vaccines help Prevent Pneumonia.”

American Lung Association: “Pneumonia Symptoms and Diagnosis.”

American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery: “What Is Post-Nasal Drip?”

International Journal of Otolaryngology: “Chronic Cough, Reflux, Postnasal Drip Syndrome, and the Otolaryngologist.”

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