Wet Cough: Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatments

Medically Reviewed By Fred Aleskerov, MD
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A wet cough contains mucus or another fluid from the upper or lower respiratory tract. Causes of a wet cough can be mild, including the common cold and influenza. In some cases, however, a wet cough may be a symptom of a serious or life threatening condition. Seek immediate medical care or call 911 for anyone experiencing serious symptoms. These can include:

  • difficulty breathing
  • severe upper body pain
  • high fever
  • dizziness
  • a change in skin color
  • a change in the level of consciousness or alertness
  • a rapid heart rate

Read on to learn more about wet coughs, including their causes and treatment options.

What is a wet cough?

Woman with hand over chest and eyes closed
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A wet cough is a cough that produces mucus or another fluid that is white, yellow, or green. Sometimes, mucus may also contain traces of blood. The medical term for a wet cough is a “productive cough.”

When fluid is present in the upper or lower respiratory tract, it can cause a cough that brings that fluid farther up into the respiratory system, such as the throat, to help clear the airways. You might be able to hear the fluid in a wet cough, as it can produce a wheezing or rattling sound.

A wet cough can be acute or chronic, depending on the cause.

Wet cough vs. dry cough

A dry cough differs from a wet cough in that it does not produce any fluid. Dry coughs are also known as “unproductive coughs” or “nonproductive coughs.”

Similar to a wet cough, dry coughs can result from infections and heart and lung problems.

Learn more about dry coughs here.

What symptoms might occur with a wet cough?

Other symptoms may also be present alongside a wet cough, and these vary depending on the underlying cause.

Symptoms you may experience alongside a wet cough include:

When to seek medical care

In some cases, a wet cough can indicate a more serious or possibly life threatening condition. 

You should seek medical care for any cough that lasts longer than 3–4 weeks or that accompanies any of the following symptoms:

Seek emergency medical care for anyone who is experiencing severe respiratory symptoms, which include:

What causes a wet cough?

A wet cough can have many possible causes, and these causes range in severity.

Milder conditions, such as a common cold, can result in an easily treatable cough. However, wet coughs can also be a symptom of a serious underlying respiratory or cardiac condition.

Respiratory causes of a wet cough

A wet cough may be due to a respiratory condition, such as:

Some causes may be more common in children than they are in adults. These include croup, whooping cough, and the early development of a serious long-term condition.

Non-respiratory causes of a wet cough

Non-respiratory conditions can also cause a wet cough. These conditions can include:

COVID-19 and wet cough

COVID-19 can cause a dry, wet, or persistent cough. Further complications of this disease may also result in a persistent cough that is wet or dry.

If your cough is the result of an infection with SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, it may accompany other symptoms, such as:

As with other causes of a wet cough, you should contact your doctor if your symptoms are severe.

Learn more about the symptoms of COVID-19 here.

Diagnosing wet cough

A severe cough or a cough that presents alongside other symptoms may require medical investigation.

To diagnose the cause of the cough, your doctor may ask for details on your full medical history or conduct a physical exam.

Questions your doctor may ask could concern:

  • whether or not you smoke
  • the duration of the cough
  • your occupation
  • any weight loss
  • any associated symptoms, such as fever, shortness of breath, or blood in the mucus
  • the presence of an infection during the onset of the cough
  • any aggravating factors

Your doctor may also require medical exams to make a diagnosis, including:

Ways to treat a wet cough

Treatment of your cough will depend on your symptoms and the underlying cause. Many causes of a wet cough are mild and treatable with the management of non-life-threatening symptoms.

If symptoms are more severe or debilitating, your doctor can advise you on whether you need clinical treatment and what course of treatment is right for you.

Antibiotics are a common option in the treatment of bacterial infections. However, antibiotics are not advisable for certain cases of bacteria-related coughs, and they will not help treat a cough that stems from a non-bacterial cause. Misuse of antibiotics could result in harm.

At-home treatments

If your symptoms are not severe, you may be able to improve them at home. At-home cough relief methods can include:

  • getting plenty of rest
  • drinking plenty of fluids
  • breathing in steam from a bowl of hot water or the shower
  • sucking on lozenges
  • consuming honey
  • taking over-the-counter medications, but only after a consultation with a pharmacist or doctor

Some cough medications work by suppressing the cough reflex. These drugs are not suitable for wet coughs, as in suppressing the cough, they prevent mucus and other fluids from leaving the lungs.

Treating a wet cough in children

Certain at-home treatments for a wet cough are not appropriate for children.

Lozenges, for example, are not suitable for children younger than 4 years old. Also, children should not use over-the-counter cough and pain relief medications without the advice of a doctor.

At-home remedies for children can include:

  • consuming warm, clear fluids, such as apple juice
  • consuming warm honey, but only if the child is over 1 year old
  • staying hydrated
  • using a humidifier or warm shower to increase the moisture in the air

What are the potential complications of a wet cough?

Because a wet cough can be a symptom of a serious condition or disease, not seeking treatment may result in further complications and permanent damage.

After getting a diagnosis of an underlying condition, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that your doctor provides to reduce the risk of potential complications. These can include:

Summary

A wet cough can result from a number of conditions that range in severity. It can also be the result of a SARS-CoV-2 infection.

For mild symptoms, you can alleviate discomfort with at-home treatments. Safe at-home remedies for a wet cough will depend on the age of the person with the cough.

However, you should seek immediate medical attention for more serious symptoms that accompany a wet cough — such as difficulty breathing, fever, or chest pain — and for a cough that persists for several weeks.

In severe cases, a wet cough can indicate a serious underlying health condition.

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Medical Reviewer: Fred Aleskerov, MD
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 8
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