Wet Cough

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Introduction

What is a wet cough?

A wet cough is a common symptom of respiratory infection, allergies, and heart conditions. The medical term for a wet cough is productive cough. A wet cough results from the presence of mucus or other fluid within the upper or lower respiratory tract. It may occur in conditions affecting one or both lungs, the bronchi, the larynx, or the pharynx. It may also be associated with more generalized conditions, such as a cold, hay fever, or the flu.

Specific causes of a wet cough include infection and inflammation of the lungs (pneumonia) and bronchi (bronchitis). Other specific causes include chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), bronchiectasis (destruction and widening of the large airways), cystic fibrosis, and tuberculosis. Cancer of the lung is a common cause of a wet cough that may bring up bloody sputum (hemoptysis). Allergies involving the lungs (asthma) can also cause a wet cough.

Heart conditions can lead to a wet cough; serious causes include fluid buildup in the lungs due to an acute episode of congestive heart failure. Elevation of the head during rest may improve wet cough symptoms.

In some cases, a wet cough may be a sign of a serious or-life threatening condition. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have serious symptoms, such as severe difficulty breathing and sharp chest pain, which may be accompanied by high fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit), pale or blue lips, change in level of consciousness or alertness, or rapid heart rate.

Seek prompt medical care if you are being treated for a wet cough but mild symptoms recur or are persistent.

Symptoms

What other symptoms might occur with a wet cough?

A wet cough may accompany other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Symptoms that frequently affect the respiratory tract may also involve other body systems.

Respiratory symptoms that may occur along with a wet cough

A wet cough may accompany other symptoms that affect the respiratory system including:

  • Absence of breathing (apnea)

  • Chest pain or pressure

  • Cough that gets more severe over time

  • Coughing up blood (hemoptysis)

  • Coughing up clear, yellow, light brown, or green mucus

  • Coughing up pink frothy mucus

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Rapid breathing (tachypnea)

  • Shortness of breath

  • Wheezing (whistling sound made with breathing)

Other symptoms that may occur along with a wet cough

A wet cough may accompany other symptoms that affect other body systems including:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, a wet cough can be a sign of a life-threatening condition. Seek i mmediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

  • Bluish coloration of the lips or fingernails

  • Change in level of consciousness or alertness, such as passing out or unresponsiveness

  • Hemoptysis (coughing-up blood)

  • High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)

  • Respiratory or breathing problems, such as shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, labored breathing, wheezing, not breathing, or choking

Causes

What causes a wet cough?

A wet cough is a common symptom of respiratory infections or heart conditions. It results from the presence of mucus within the upper or lower respiratory tract. It may occur in conditions affecting one or both lungs, the bronchi, the larynx, or the pharynx. It may also be associated with more generalized conditions, such as a cold, hay fever, or the flu.

Respiratory causes of a wet cough

A wet cough may be caused by respiratory disorders including:

  • Acute bronchitis

  • Asthma or allergies

  • Bronchiectasis (destruction and widening of the airways)

  • Bronchiolitis (inflammation of the smallest airways in the lungs)

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), including emphysema and chronic bronchitis

  • Common cold (viral respiratory infection)

  • Cystic fibrosis (thick mucus in the lungs or digestive tract)

  • Influenza (flu)

  • Lung cancer

  • Pneumonia

  • Tuberculosis (serious infection affecting the lungs and other organs)

Cardiac causes of a wet cough

A wet cough can also be caused by cardiac disorders, including congestive heart failure (deterioration of the heart’s ability to pump blood).

Serious or life-threatening causes of a wet cough

In some cases, a wet cough may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated by a health care provider. These include:

  • Congestive heart failure

  • Lung cancer

  • Pneumonia

  • Pulmonary aspiration (inhaling blood, vomited material, or other substances into the lungs)

Questions for diagnosing the cause of a wet cough

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your wet cough including:

  • Are you coughing up any sputum? If so, what color is it?

  • Do you have any other symptoms?

  • How long have you had a wet cough?

  • What medications are you taking?

  • When do you have a wet cough?

What are the potential complications of a wet cough?

Because a wet cough can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Adverse effects of treatment

  • Diminished overall quality of life

  • Heart failure

  • Inability to work or attend school

  • Respiratory failure

  • Sleep disorder

  • Spread of cancer

  • Spread of infection

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2018 Dec 27
  1. Cough. MedlinePlus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003072.htm.
  2. Cough. FamilyDoctor.org. http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/health-tools/search-by-symptom/cough.html.
  3. Irwin RS, Baumann MH, Bolser DC, et al. Diagnosis and management of cough executive summary: ACCP evidence-based clinical practice guidelines. Chest 2006; 129:1S.
  4. Bope ET, Kellerman RD (Eds.) Conn’s Current Therapy. Philadelphia: Saunders, 2013.
  5. Domino FJ (Ed.) Five Minute Clinical Consult. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2013.
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