Productive vs. Nonproductive Cough

Teenage girl (13-15) coughing, close-up
Arthur Tilley/The Image Bank/Getty Imagesd

Coughs can be caused by any number of medical illnesses or conditions. Some last for just a few days while others are chronic, lasting weeks, months, or years. A cough is not an illness though. It is a symptom of an illness or condition. 

When classifying coughs, there are generally two types that come to mind. These are known as nonproductive and productive coughs. But what is the difference? These are technical terms, so how is the average, non-medical person supposed to know what they mean?

Nonproductive Cough

What exactly is a "nonproductive cough"? Technically, a nonproductive cough is one that does not bring up any mucus. It's also known as a dry cough. 

Nonproductive coughs tend to be caused by irritation in the throat or swelling in the airways caused by conditions such as asthma or bronchitis

You could have a nonproductive cough when you have a cold, the flu or any other upper respiratory illness. However, these illnesses can cause a productive cough as well. 

Productive Cough

What does it mean to have a productive cough? If your health care provider - or anyone else - has ever asked you this question, you should know how to answer.

cough is defined as productive when some type of secretions come up during coughing. This could be mucous or blood and can occur for many different reasons. Your doctor needs to know what the secretions look like.

It could be:

  • Green
  • Yellow
  • White and creamy
  • Clear
  • Blood-tinged
  • Dark red blood
  • Bright red blood

Sometimes we have productive coughs when we have a simple upper respiratory infection (or cold). If this is the cause, it usually resolves within a few days. However, much more serious illnesses can cause productive coughs as well. 

If your cough is productive and lasts longer than a week or two, contact your health care provider.

 

If you are coughing up pink, frothy secretions, seek medical attention immediately. This can be a sign of a life-threatening condition. You should contact your health care provider right away if you are coughing up blood. 

Basically, if you are coughing stuff up, you have a productive cough. If you aren't, then you have a nonproductive or a dry cough. 

A Word From Verywell

Coughing is irritating whether it's productive or not. When you have a cough, you just want it to go away. 

First, make sure it isn't a cough that requires a trip to the doctor. If it isn't, there are things you can do to get relief at home. However, it's important to know that suppressing a cough all day and night could actually make things worse. If you have mucus in your airway and don't get it out, it can turn into a more serious illness like pneumonia. 

Making sure you drink plenty of clear liquids to stay hydrated, running a humidifier when you sleep at night and even eating a spoonful of honey can help with a cough. 

If you want to try medications, there are several types of cough medicine you can try. Expectorants help loosen and thin mucus and cough suppressants may help calm a cough so you can sleep. Use caution with cough suppressants though.

They can cause more harm than good in young children and extended use of cough suppressants that contain codeine are dangerous for people of any age. 

If you aren't sure what treatment is best, contact your healthcare provider for guidance. 

Sources:

Cough: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003072.htm.

Cough - NHLBI, NIH. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/cough. 

Coughs and Colds: Medicines or Home Remedies? HealthyChildren.org. http://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/chest-lungs/Pages/Coughs-and-Colds-Medicines-or-Home-Remedies.aspx. 

Continue Reading