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Understand What Your Cough Means

As cold and flu season approaches, you might find yourself trying to figure out what a cough means, but is there a way to tell? What if your cough is dry and hacking? How about a cough that produces phlegm? At what point do you need to seek medical treatment for a cough?

These are good questions because not all coughs are the same. Learning to interpret different kinds of coughs is the key to knowing if you have the common cold or something more serious.

What is a Cough?

Coughing is the body’s way of trying to expel something to keep it out of the lungs. When food goes down the wrong pipe, for example, you cough until it comes back up. This natural defense mechanism keeps foreign bodies out of your lungs where they can do damage.

When your body senses an intruder like a rogue french fry that goes down the wrong way, it signals the brain and the windpipe closes automatically. Sealing the windpipe causes pressure to build in the lungs, and you begin coughing hard to remove the obstruction.

What are the Different Kinds of Coughs?

A cough you get with your yearly cold has a different quality to it then what someone with a chronic condition like asthma experiences. Colds produce mucus so that a cough is often wet sounding while an asthma cough tends to be dry with a slight wheeze. Here’s a breakdown of what might be the causes of several different types of coughs:

  • Flu Virus — Viral infections like the seasonal flu usually come with a dry cough, unless the infection has gone into the lungs. Viral pneumonia would lead to a harder cough, one that may or may not be productive.
  • The Common Cold — An upper respiratory infection like the common cold generally means a wet and messy cough. The infection irritates the upper airway, increasing mucus production. Your cough is an attempt to rid the body of that mucus and opening the airway.
  • Whooping Cough — Whooping a cough is characterized by coughing fits that make a whooping sound.
  • GERD — If you are prone to acid reflux, you might experience a different kind of a cough as your body tries to prevent acid from entering the windpipe. If you notice a cough gets worse when you lie down, the problem might be with your stomach
  • COPD — COPD is a chronic condition that produces lots of mucus. That cough will be worse in the morning but get better as the day goes on.
  • Pneumonia — Pneumonia is an infection (either bacterial or viral) of the lungs, and it usually starts with a dry cough. After a few days, it will become wetter and you may cough up mucus that is yellow, green or even streaked with red.

Anytime you have a cough that persists, you’ll need to seek professional medical treatment no matter what it sounds like or why you think you have it. You can listen to a cough and get an idea of what might be going on, but only a clinician can make a proper diagnosis. If you have a persistent cough, visit a clinic near you to get a treatment plan as soon as possible.