Painful Cough? Identify What Type of Cough You Have

Evaluate Your Cough Symptoms

Woman coughing on the street
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There are so many different types of coughs. Each one is distinct and could help indicate what illness you have. Here we look at the major types of cough symptoms and some possible causes.

Is it a dry cough?

Is it a wet, productive cough?

Is it a wet, non-productive cough?

Is it a painful cough?

Is the cough in a child and sounds like a seal bark?

Is it a chronic cough (lasting longer than two to three weeks)?

When Should You Go to a Doctor for Your Cough?

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It is hard to know when you should go to a doctor for a cough. Often they are just a nuisance, but some coughs can be quite serious. You should be sure to see your health care provider if:

  • you have a cough that has lasted longer than a week
  • your cough is very painful
  • you are coughing up blood
  • you are coughing up mucus that is yellow, tan, or green and you also have a fever
  • you are short of breath or wheezing
  • you have a history of heart problems
  • it is accompanied by night sweats or fevers at night
  • you are coughing up pink, frothy mucus—go to the emergency room immediately

Cough Medications

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There are two types of over the counter cough medications—expectorants and suppressants. They work in different ways to treat your cough. Which one you should take depends on the type of cough you are experiencing.


Expectorants help bring up mucous when you have congestion in your chest and it is not cleared with the cough. These are the most useful when you have a wet, non productive cough.


If you have a productive cough, it is best not to take medication to suppress it. Suppressants stifle the cough reflex and help you stop coughing.

Research on cough suppressants has shown that they do not work for many people. If you do choose to use a cough suppressant, they should generally only be used at night.

Coughing is the body's reaction to a foreign object in the lungs, whether it is dust, mucous, or another object. If you have chest congestion, coughing will help get it out of your lungs and help you heal more quickly. Suppressing or stopping this type of cough can lead to more serious illnesses like pneumonia.

Evaluating Your Cough & Your Other Symptoms

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Do you have any other symptoms with your cough? These serious illnesses are all characterized by a combination of a cough and other symptoms. If you think you may have one of these illnesses, contact your health care provider.

  • Fever and chest pain may indicate pneumonia.
  • Head congestion, fever and body aches could be the flu.
  • Chest pain may be bronchitis.
  • Blood, night sweats and weight loss may be tuberculosis.

If you have any of these symptoms, you should contact your doctor. Only a health care professional can diagnose and treat these conditions.

Humidifiers for Coughs... and More Ideas

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A humidifier is a great option to help relieve coughing and also to break up chest congestion. Be sure to clean it regularly to prevent the growth of bacteria and mildew.

If you or your child wakes up in the night with a cough and you do not own a humidifier, going into a steamy bathroom may help soothe your lungs as well. Controlling your cough can help with the pain and irritation that often comes with a severe cough.


Silvestri RC, Weinberger SE. Evaluation of subacute and chronic cough in adults. In: UpToDate. Hollingsworth H (Ed.) 2017.

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