Allergy Causes & Symptoms

What Every Different Type of Cough Means

Photo of a person reaching curiously toward a spray of reeds.
Photo by Chris Abatzis via Death to Stock

There are few things more annoying than a cough that just won’t quit, especially during times like these. How you treat a cough largely depends on what kind of cough it is, and what’s causing it. You could be looking at anything from allergies to an infection—that’s why we’re breaking down the different types of coughs and how to know which kind means what.

What exactly is a cough?

Before we get into the types and causes of coughs, let’s talk about what happens when you cough. First, air is inhaled. Then, the epiglottis, which connects your throat to your windpipe, closes while the chest constricts, causing air to compress inside the lungs. Finally, the epiglottis opens back up, and a sudden burst of air is pushed out through the mouth.

What does my cough mean?

A cough can be caused by any number of things, including non-medical issues. You might find yourself coughing after a prolonged bout of laughter, or maybe when some food or liquid “goes down the wrong pipe” (aka enters your airway instead of going down the esophagus and into the stomach). You might even notice you always cough when you eat or drink something really cold, like ice cream or ice water.

Often, a cough caused by those things will be a fleeting, one-time thing (though if food or liquid enter your lungs, it can lead to more serious issues like pneumonia.) If you notice your cough is persisting, though, first examine exactly what the cough feels like.

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What type of cough do I have?

There are more types of cough than you might think, and figuring out which kind you have can help you or your doctor determine what the cause might be, and in turn, if and what treatment is necessary.

There are two different ways to look at coughs: acute versus chronic and productive versus dry. This means you could have an acute productive cough or an acute dry cough.

So with no further ado:

What is an acute cough?

Acute coughs will only last up to about a month, and generally clear up on their own, without any medical attention.

What is a chronic cough?

Chronic coughs last more than two months and can be symptomatic of a more serious issue, such as chronic lung disease, environmental allergies, asthma, and or GERD.

What is a productive cough?

A productive, or wet, cough brings up phlegm or mucus and could be a symptom of illnesses like the flu, pneumonia, or bronchitis.

What is a dry cough?

A dry, or nonproductive, cough is one that produces no mucus or phlegm, and could be a symptom of a common cold, allergies, or a collapsed lung.

Common coughing causes

Considering how many types of cough there are, there are even more causes, ranging in levels of severity. Here are some of the potential causes behind your persistent coughing:

Infection

Both lower and upper respiratory tract infections can lead to an acute cough.

Lower respiratory tract infections are viral and bacterial infections, such as bronchitis and pneumonia, and typically lead to a persistent cough and fever.

Nose and throat infections, meanwhile, are upper respiratory tract infections and are among the most common causes of illness-related coughing, and often include symptoms like fevers, runny noses, and sore throats. They tend to be caused by the common cold, the flu, laryngitis, and other viral infections.

COVID-19

Coughing is a common symptom of COVID-19, so if you’re experiencing a cough (especially a dry one) and may have been exposed, you should get tested as soon as you can.

Allergies

Allergic rhinitis in particular tends to look a lot like the common cold, with symptoms like dry cough, runny nose, and sneezing. While the common cold generally runs its course in no longer than 10 days, allergies can last for weeks or even months.

Environmental factors

Exposure to pollution, smoke, fumes, and/or vapors can irritate your lungs and throat, causing short-term or prolonged coughing.

How do I treat my cough?

Your treatment will depend on the cause of your cough, and what type of cough it is.

For example, if it’s caused by environmental factors such as pollution or smoking, lifestyle changes like getting an air purifier or giving up smoking could help ease your coughing.

If hay fever or other allergies are the culprit, consider trying oral antihistamines and throat lozenges.

The common cold, the flu, and laryngitis, meanwhile, almost always clear up on their own. If they’re causing your cough, make sure you rest up, drink plenty of fluids, sit with a humidifier, take cough medicine or use throat lozenges, and, in the case of laryngitis, give your voice a break.

If your cough lasts longer than a few weeks, or you’re also experiencing fatigue, a fever, a headache, or shortness or breath, you should talk with a doctor to determine if you have an infection that should be treated with antibiotics or another medication.

Things to remember

There are different kinds of coughs, and all can be caused by a number of things, ranging from the benign—like momentarily being unable to catch your breath—to the more serious, like a lung infection.

If you think your coughing is caused by allergies, check out the allergy treatments that Picnic has to offer. If you’re unsure about what could be causing your cough, check with your doctor about what steps you should take.

No matter what kind of cough you have and what’s causing it, if you’re around other people, make sure you cover your mouth when you cough. Using your hands is okay in a pinch, but even better is the “vampire cough,” where you cough into the crook of your elbow—just like Dracula!

ARTICLE REVIEWED BYAmina H. Abdeldaim, MD MPHPicnic Medical Director
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