Phlegm or no phlegm? The difference between types of coughs

Phlegm or no phlegm? The difference between types of coughs

When you are sick, you may be asked if you have a dry or productive/wet cough at your doctor’s appointment. You may wonder why that appetite-stealing detail matters, but it can help your doctor determine a diagnosis.

Coughing is your body’s natural way of cleaning irritants from your throat and airway – including phlegm, germs and allergens. When you cough up phlegm, it’s called a productive/wet cough.

A dry cough doesn’t produce phlegm and can be triggered by allergies, asthma, smoking, bronchitis or even gastric acid.

A productive cough’s phlegm can be an array of colors. But the color matters. Dr. Hendrik Schultz, an internal medicine physician at Aurora Health Care, says, “White phlegm is less concerning and signals respiratory irritation. Yellow phlegm occurs due to inflammation, which can occur when your body is fighting an infection. If it gets worse over time or you develop a fever, have chills, sweats or feel drowsy, you should contact your doctor.”

Red phlegm signals you are coughing up blood. If that’s the case, Dr. Schultz notes you should tell your doctor as soon as possible. “It can be caused by a range of conditions – some harmless, but some more serious – including severe bronchitis, tuberculosis, lung cancer or even autoimmune diseases.”

Besides bloody phlegm, the length of time you have had the cough can also indicate its severity. “If your cough lasts eight or more weeks, it’s considered a chronic cough,” explains Dr. Schultz. “A physical examination, review of your medical history, lab work, x-ray and/or pulmonary function test may be warranted to workup the cough further and pinpoint an underlying cause.”

A cough without accompanying symptoms and started less than eight weeks ago can typically be treated from home. The biggest difference between treating a dry versus productive cough is that over-the-counter expectorants can help clear phlegm from your throat. Natural expectorants include drinking hot tea and eating a spoonful of honey.

Other at-home cough remedies:
  • Using a humidifier
  • Staying hydrated
  • Using cough drops
  • Avoiding irritants, including smoke and common allergens
  • Quitting smoking

If you have any questions, concerns, or if your symptoms progress, schedule an appointment with your doctor.

Want to learn more about your risk for lung cancer? Take a free online quiz.

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About the Author

Anna Kohler
Anna Kohler

Anna Kohler, health enews contributor, is a public affairs specialist for Advocate Health Care and Aurora Health Care. She received her Bachelor of Science in public relations from Illinois State University and has worked in healthcare public relations and content marketing for over five years. In her free time, she enjoys working out, exploring new places with her friends and family, and keeping up with the latest social media trends.