Clearing Up Cough Confusion

Creator of Zarbee’s, Dr. Zak Zarbock, clears up cough confusion with answers to some of the most common questions about coughs.

coughing confusion

What are the different types of coughs?

A cough is a natural reflex that is triggered by irritation of the airways or the nerves that control the reflex. There are many conditions, both disease and non-disease related, that might trigger the cough reflex. Learning to identify the distinguishing characteristics of the cough may help in understanding the source. Coughs can be broken down into two main types: productive and non-productive.

  • Non-productive/Dry Cough

A non-productive cough, also known as a dry cough, produces little to no phlegm. Upper respiratory tract infections, including the common cold, sore throats, sinus infections, and the flu, are common causes of dry cough. Viruses, which cause most upper respiratory tract infections, typically resolve without medications in one to two weeks. A non-productive cough may persist for several weeks after the resolution of the other symptoms of an upper respiratory tract infection.

Other qualities of a non-productive cough that may be helpful in identifying the source include the sound, persistence, or episodic nature. For instance, a barky sounding cough may be an indication of croup, a common viral illness of childhood. A persistent dry cough may be a result of cough-variant asthma, allergies, or gastroesophageal reflux (stomach acid in the esophagus). Exposure to certain airway irritants including pollution and cigarette smoke may also cause a persistent cough. Lastly, a cough may be paroxysmal, which is characterized by periods of severe, nearly continuous coughing, often described as “coughing fits.” Asthma, as well as Pertussis (also known as whooping cough), may result in a paroxysmal cough.

  • Productive/Wet Cough

A productive cough, or a wet cough, is one that produces phlegm. This type of cough typically indicates a disease process involving excessive production of mucus in the lungs or fluid leakage into the airways. Pneumonia is a frequent cause of a productive cough. Pneumonia is an infection originating in the tiny air sacs (alveoli) of the lungs caused by bacteria, viruses, or fungi. The infection triggers an inflammatory response that leads to mucus production and fluid in the airways.

Chronic bronchitis, a form of chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, is a leading cause of persistent, productive cough. The condition develops with prolonged irritation of the lungs. Chronic bronchitis may also be the result of cigarette smoking. Continual inflammation of the airways creates a significant increase in mucus production, leading to a chronic productive cough.

Are coughs contagious?

Depending on the source, a cough may or may not be contagious. A cough that is a result of a viral or bacterial infection may be very contagious. Conversely, coughs related solely to allergies, asthma or airway irritation may not be contagious at all.

What are some signs that a cough requires medical attention?

It may be difficult to always know when you should go to a doctor for a cough. Signs that you should seek medical attention include:

  • A cough that is prolonged, lasting more than a few weeks
  • Any shortness of breath, difficulty breathing or wheezing
  • Cough associated with fever, chills, sweating, or ill appearance
  • Chest pain or painful cough
  • Coughing up phlegm that is green, yellow, blood-stained, or foul smelling

How long should adults and children wait before seeking medical attention for their coughs?

In the absence of more concerning symptoms, it is not uncommon for a cough caused by a viral infection to last a few weeks. However, a cough associated with worsening symptoms, especially in children, should probably be evaluated after 7 days.

How do you know if a cough is a sign of an infection?

It is not always obvious as to whether or not a cough is related to an infection or another cause such as allergies, irritants, pollution or simple throat irritation. An infection is often associated with additional symptoms that may include: fever, colored mucus from the nose or lungs, achiness, fatigue, etc.

How do I know when a cough is safe enough to go to work/school or if it’s better to stay home?

Simple guidelines on when it is safe to go back to work or school with a cough would include: a non-productive, infrequent cough; no fever for 24 hours; only mild congestion or slight runny nose.

How do you know if a cough is related to asthma and allergies?

Seasonal allergies and asthma can both be a cause of prolonged cough. Allergies are generally associated with runny nose and itchy, watery eyes. The cough related to allergies is triggered by inflammation of the airways and post-nasal drainage leading to throat irritation.

Asthma is a condition affecting the lungs themselves, creating both constriction of and inflammation within the lower airways. Asthma is characterized by wheezing, cough, and difficulty breathing, as air is pushed through narrowed airways. This type of cough is usually responsive to medications designed to relax constricted airways and decrease inflammation.

Zak Zarbock, M.D. is one of the country’s top practicing pediatricians and the Founder of Zarbee’s Effective & Natural remedies, the fastest-growing cough remedy brand in the country. Dr. Zak (as he is known) is a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and also practices medicine at Families First Pediatrics in South Jordan, Utah. Dr. Zak is married to his wife of thirteen years and is the proud father of four boys between the ages of three and eleven. In his spare time, Dr. Zak enjoys skiing, hiking, camping and spending time with his family.

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