Coughing is your body’s way of getting rid of an irritant.

When something irritates your throat or airway, your nervous system sends an alert to your brain. Your brain responds by telling the muscles in your chest and abdomen to contract and expel a burst of air.

A cough is an important defensive reflex that helps protect your body from irritants like:

  • mucus
  • smoke
  • allergens, such as dust, mold, and pollen

Coughing is a symptom of many illnesses and conditions. Sometimes, the characteristics of your cough can give you a clue to its cause.

Coughs can be described by:

  • Behavior or experience. When and why does the cough happen? Is it at night, after eating, or while exercising?
  • Characteristics. How does your cough sound or feel? Hacking, wet, or dry?
  • Duration. Does your cough last less than 2 weeks, 6 weeks, or more than 8 weeks?
  • Effects. Does your cough cause related symptoms such as urinary incontinence, vomiting, or sleeplessness?
  • Grade. How bad is it? Is it annoying, persistent, or debilitating?

Occasionally, an obstruction in your airway triggers your cough reflex. If you or your child has ingested something that could be blocking your airway, seek immediate medical attention. Signs of choking include:

  • bluish skin
  • loss of consciousness
  • inability to speak or cry
  • wheezing, whistling, or other odd breathing noises
  • weak or ineffective cough
  • panic

If you observe any of these signs, call 911 and perform the Heimlich maneuver or CPR.

A wet cough, also called a productive cough, is a cough that typically brings up mucus.

A cold or the flu commonly causes wet coughs. They can come on slowly or quickly and may be accompanied by other symptoms, such as:

  • runny nose
  • postnasal drip
  • fatigue

Wet coughs sound wet because your body is pushing mucus out of your respiratory system, which includes your:

  • throat
  • nose
  • airways
  • lungs

If you have a wet cough, you may feel like there’s something stuck or dripping at the back of your throat or in your chest. Some of your coughs will bring mucus into your mouth.

Wet coughs can be acute and last less than 3 weeks or chronic and last longer than 8 weeks in adults or 4 weeks in children. The duration of a cough may be a big clue as to its cause.

Conditions that can cause a wet cough include:

Coughs in babies, toddlers, and children that last less than 3 weeks are almost always caused by a cold or the flu.

Remedies for a wet cough

  • Babies and toddlers. Treat with a cool-mist humidifier. You can also use saline drops in nasal passages and then clean the nose with a bulb syringe. Don’t give over-the-counter (OTC) cough or cold medication to babies or toddlers under age 2.
  • Children. A small clinical trial found that 1 1/2 teaspoons of honey given a half-hour before bedtime reduces cough and encourages better sleep in children ages 1 and older. Use a humidifier at night to moisten the air. Talk with your doctor about OTC cough and cold medications before using them as a treatment.
  • Adults. Adults can treat acute wet coughs with OTC cough and cold symptom-relieving medications or honey. If a cough persists for longer than 3 weeks, antibiotic therapy or other treatments may be required.

A dry cough is a cough that doesn’t bring up mucus. It may feel like you have a tickle in the back of your throat triggering your cough reflex, giving you hacking coughs.

Dry coughs are often difficult to manage and may present in long fits. Dry coughs occur because there’s inflammation or irritation in your respiratory tract, but there’s no excess mucus to cough up.

Dry coughs are often caused by upper respiratory infections, such as a cold or the flu.

In both children and adults, it’s common for dry coughs to linger for several weeks after a cold or the flu has passed. Other possible causes of dry cough include:

COVID-19 and dry cough

Dry cough is one of the most common symptoms of COVID-19. Other telltale signs of COVID-19 include fever and shortness of breath.

If you’re sick and think you may have COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend the following:

  • stay home and avoid public places
  • separate yourself from all family members and pets as much as possible
  • cover your coughs and sneezes
  • wear a cloth mask if you’re around other people
  • stay in touch with your doctor
  • call ahead if you end up seeking medical attention
  • wash your hands often
  • avoid sharing household items with other people in the house
  • disinfect common surfaces often
  • monitor your symptoms

You should seek emergency medical attention if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • trouble breathing
  • heaviness or tightness in the chest
  • bluish lips
  • confusion

Learn more at this resource page for COVID-19.

Remedies for a dry cough

Remedies for dry cough depend on its cause.

  • Babies and toddlers. In babies and toddlers, dry coughs typically don’t require treatment. A humidifier can help make them more comfortable. To treat croup breathing, bring your child into a bathroom full of steam or outside in the cool night air.
  • Older children. A humidifier will help keep their respiratory system from drying out. Older children can also use cough drops to soothe sore throats. If their condition continues for more than 3 weeks, talk with your doctor about other causes. Your child may need antibiotics, antihistamines, or asthma medications.
  • Adults. A chronic, long-lasting dry cough in adults can have many possible causes. Tell your doctor about symptoms such as pain and heartburn. You may need antibiotics, antacids, asthma medications, or further testing. Tell your doctor about all medications and supplements that you’re currently taking.

A paroxysmal cough is a cough with intermittent attacks of violent, uncontrollable coughing. A paroxysmal cough feels exhausting and painful. People struggle to get a breath and may vomit.

Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, is a bacterial infection that causes violent coughing fits.

During whooping cough attacks, the lungs release all the air they have, causing people to inhale violently with a “whoop” sound.

Babies have a higher risk of contracting whooping cough and face more serious complications from it. For them, whooping cough may be life threatening.

For those ages 2 months and older, the best way to avoid contracting pertussis is by getting vaccinated.

Whooping cough frequently causes paroxysmal coughs. Other possible causes of a bad coughing fit include:

Remedies for a paroxysmal cough

People of all ages require antibiotic treatment for whooping cough.

Whooping cough is very contagious, so family members and caregivers of someone with whooping cough should also be treated. The earlier whooping cough is treated, the better the outcome.

Croup is a viral infection that typically affects children ages 5 and younger.

Croup causes the upper airway to become irritated and swollen. Young children already have narrower airways. When swelling further narrows the airway, it becomes difficult to breathe.

Croup causes a characteristic “barking” cough that sounds like a seal. Swelling in and around the voice box also causes a raspy voice and squeaky breathing noises.

Croup can be scary for both children and parents. Children may:

  • struggle for breath
  • make high-pitched noises during inhalation
  • breathe very rapidly

In severe cases, children become pale or bluish.

Remedies for a croup cough

Croup usually passes on its own without treatment. Home remedies include:

  • placing a cool-mist humidifier in their bedroom
  • bringing the child into a steam-filled bathroom for up to 10 minutes
  • taking the child outside to breathe cool air
  • taking the child for a ride in the car with the windows partially open to the cooler air
  • giving children’s acetaminophen (Tylenol) for fever as directed by your pediatrician
  • making sure your child drinks plenty of fluids and gets lots of rest
  • for severe cases, children may need a nebulizer breathing treatment or prescription steroid to reduce inflammation

Many coughs don’t require a doctor’s visit. It depends on the type of cough and how long it’s lasted, as well as a person’s age and health.

People with other lung diseases, such as asthma and COPD, may require treatment sooner or more frequently than others.

Children with a cough should be seen by a doctor if they:

  • have a cough for more than 3 weeks
  • have a fever above 102°F (38.89°C) or any fever in children ages 2 months and younger
  • become so out of breath that they can’t talk or walk
  • turn bluish or pale
  • are dehydrated or unable to swallow food
  • are extremely fatigued
  • make a “whoop” noise during violent coughing attacks
  • are wheezing in addition to coughing

Call 911 if your child:

  • loses consciousness
  • can’t be awakened
  • is too weak to stand

Adults with a cough should contact their doctor if they:

  • have a cough for more than 8 weeks
  • cough up blood
  • have a fever above 100.4°F (38°C)
  • are too weak to talk or walk
  • are severely dehydrated
  • make a “whoop” noise during violent coughing attacks
  • are wheezing in addition to coughing
  • have daily stomach acid reflux or heartburn, or a cough in general, that interferes with sleep

Call 911 if an adult:

  • loses consciousness
  • can’t be awakened
  • is too weak to stand

There are many types of coughs. The characteristics, duration, and severity of a cough may indicate the cause. Coughing is a symptom of many illnesses and could be caused by a variety of conditions.