What is a Productive Cough?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

When people cough they may have what is called a dry cough, or they might have a productive cough. A dry cough usually doesn’t “produce” anything. There is no mucus or phlegm that comes up when the person coughs. When a person has a productive cough, they will cough into their throat and usually mouth, some form of phlegm or mucus.

Productive coughing produces mucus.
Productive coughing produces mucus.

There are a number of reasons why people may have a productive cough. It can be the throat’s way of clearing mucus dripping down into it from the sinus passages when a cold is present. Coughing helps clear this process and can actually produce better breathing space. Alternately, when the airway is blocked with phlegm, as is the case with bronchitis, or if the lungs have fluid in them, when pneumonia occurs, the body responds by trying to cough this substance up. Other times when people have conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, or when they smoke, they’ll have productive coughs too.

Phlegm that is coughed up should be spit out, not swallowed.
Phlegm that is coughed up should be spit out, not swallowed.

However, it’s also important to note when mucus might indicate presence of very serious or real infection that isn’t just a cold or virus. Clear phlegm may not be as concerning as mucus that is green or dark yellow in color. Doctors should also know if the cough is producing blood. Sometimes this is just irritation of the throat or airway, but some conditions like tuberculosis can include coughing up blood, and this extremely serious and requires treatment.

A cough that produces green mucus may be a symptom of pneumonia, which can be diagnosed via chest X-ray.
A cough that produces green mucus may be a symptom of pneumonia, which can be diagnosed via chest X-ray.

It may also be valuable to tell doctors when a cough is dry. Dry cough may be associated with things like viral forms of pneumonia. However bacterial types of pneumonia usually have a productive cough. If symptoms suggest pneumonia, type of cough may be one way of telling the cause of the condition and indicating how it should be treated.

A productive cough can help with breathing.
A productive cough can help with breathing.

It’s easy to think of cough as associated with disorders of the respiratory tract, colds flus, infections or diseased lungs. There is another type productive cough that can give people much trouble. Some who suffer from gastrointestinal reflux disease (GERD), experience productive coughing especially when they’re lying down. This is caused by acid entering the esophagus. When a person is not otherwise ill and they experience coughing at night while trying to sleep, they may want doctors to look for other symptoms of GERD.

Those suffering from GERD may have a productive cough when lying down.
Those suffering from GERD may have a productive cough when lying down.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments

bluedolphin

@stoneMason-- Phlegm from a productive cough does not always come from the lungs. As the article said, the phlegm could also be post nasal drip, which comes from the sinuses, not the lungs.

Post nasal drip could be due to a sinus infection but it can also occur due to sinus inflammation as a result of allergies. When post nasal drip occurs, it causes irritation and tickling in the throat which causes coughing. So those who have a productive cough may not have an infection.

stoneMason

@serenesurface-- A productive cough is a sign of an infection, but it's also a good thing in the sense that it shows that the body is fighting it.

You're not swallowing the phlegm right? Those with a productive cough should spit out the phlegm into a tissue and throw it out. Also wash your hands frequently. Phlegm contains bacteria and leaving the tissues around can cause others around you to get it.

Technically, the phlegm is coming from the lungs. So if you swallow it, it will go to the stomach, not the lungs. But it's still best to spit it out.

Continue drinking herbal teas, also add things like lemon, ginger and honey to hot liquids. Not only will they soothe your throat and reduce coughing, but they will help your body fight the infection as well.

serenesurface

I think I have a productive cough. When I cough, phlegm comes up and it's very bothersome. It actually makes me nauseated. I hope this cold goes away soon. I'm drinking lots of herbal tea which seems to help.

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