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What Causes a Wet Cough? And What Is the Best Treatment?

Medically reviewed by Jobelle Ann Dela Cruz Bigalbal, MD · General Practitioner

Written by Den Alibudbud · Updated Jan 14, 2022

    What Causes a Wet Cough? And What Is the Best Treatment?

    Everyone deals with the occasional cough. However, if you notice that your cough has been around for a while and is irritating, it would be best to start assessing the cause and treatment of your cough. While a wet cough could be a minor issue, it could also be signaling an underlying condition. 

    Wet Cough vs. Dry Cough

    A productive cough, wet cough, can develop quickly or slowly while potentially accompanying other symptoms, like fatigue and a runny nose. Your body is removing mucus from your respiratory system when you cough, which is why it sounds wet. 

    On the other hand, a dry cough, or non-productive cough, is a cough that does not have any mucus. You can develop a hacking cough and feel like there is a tickling sensation at the back of your throat.

    They are hard to control, which means it could lead to long coughing fits. A dry cough can be present in a person for weeks, even after they do not have the flu or cold anymore.

    Possible Causes of a Wet Cough

    Anyone can develop a wet cough, but they do so for different reasons.

    Flu or Common Cold

    Typically, most wet coughs come from viruses or bacteria that cause the flu or cold. Mucus membranes line your respiratory systems and mucus is beneficial for many reasons. 

    For instance, they protect your lungs and keep the airways moist. So, you may get a productive cough when you have a cold or flu because your body will create more mucus to eliminate irritants, infection, etc. 


    Additionally, the causes of a productive cough can vary based on age. For most adults, a wet cough means many illnesses. For instance, a wet cough along with chest pain, shortness of breath, and a fever in adults could signal pneumonia

    It can be mild for some people, but there are high-risks groups that need to seek medical attention immediately. Some of those groups include people who are over the age of 65, taking certain medications or receiving chemotherapy, people with weakened immune systems, etc.


    Adults who have asthma are susceptible to developing a cough, but typically they would get a dry cough. However, some asthmatic people could experience chronic wet coughs.

    Cystic fibrosis, which is a hereditary disease, affects a person’s lungs. The body will create sticky and thick mucus that clogs organs like the lungs which can result in a wet cough. 

    Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

    If you have COPD, which is common in smokers, you may get symptoms that include wet cough because your body is trying to remove some mucus. However, it could be a sign that you have a respiratory infection depending on your symptoms. 

    Viral Infections

    For infants and children, viral infections and asthma are the typical causes of wet coughs. Children can also get whooping cough, which has symptoms that are similar to a common cold. Since it can create severe coughing fits, a child can make a whooping noise when they inhale.

    Children and infants can also get pneumonia, which can be dangerous.


    Additionally, environmental and foreign irritants, such as cigarette smoke, can irritate a child’s lungs and cause a wet cough. 

    How To Diagnose a Wet Cough

    The only way you can know exactly why you have a wet cough is to consult a doctor. You will have to tell your doctor how severe your symptoms are and explain how long you have had it.

    A physical exam can be used to diagnose most coughs. However, you may need additional tests, such as bloodwork and chest x-rays, if you have other symptoms, a severe cough, or a prolonged cough.

    How To Treat a Wet Cough

    Once you know what caused your wet cough, you can move onto treatment. A lot of people do not need treatment if they get a wet cough from a common virus like the flu or a cold.

    You can usually wait out a wet cough from a virus and it should go away by itself. However, if the cause was bacterial, a person may need antibiotics to kill the bacteria. 

    Although there are people who want to reduce their coughing symptoms, many children and adults may find it hard to sleep if they wake up from coughing fits in the middle of the night.

    You should be aware that children 4 years old and under should not take over-the-counter cold and cough medication. 

    It would be best to always consult a doctor about the best ways to treat your wet cough. They will know exactly what is causing it while keeping your specific needs in mind – remember, not everyone can take the same medication due to allergies, age, etc. 

    There are many other possible forms of treatment that you may try as well. For instance, a cool-mist vaporizer and steam can help you deal with your mucus and reduce your symptoms.

    Keep in mind that you should be cautious of hot steam and water if you want to inhale the steam. If your cough came from asthma, steroidal medication may be used. If you experience chest discomfort and body aches, you could take ibuprofen or acetaminophen. 

    Additionally, there are a variety of natural home remedies that you can try to relieve your symptoms. For instance, half a teaspoon of honey before sleeping could help soothe your throat, but children below 12 months old should not consume it. 

    Water is a simple yet effective method to keep your throat moist and your body hydrated while you fight off an infection. Certain teas like ginger tea have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties to help you feel better. 

    Key Takeaways

    While many wet coughs could mean that you have the common flu or cold, it is always best to stay informed.

    A simple wet cough could signal a bigger problem you may not know about. Always remember to consult a doctor to know exactly what caused it and how to properly treat a wet cough.

    Learn more about respiratory health, here


    Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

    Medically reviewed by

    Jobelle Ann Dela Cruz Bigalbal, MD

    General Practitioner

    Written by Den Alibudbud · Updated Jan 14, 2022

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