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Differences Between Dry Cough and Wet Cough

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Last updated date: 01st Mar 2024
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What is Dry Cough and Wet Cough?: An Introduction

When an irritant enters the respiratory system, the reflex through which the body aims to get rid of it by expelling the air is known as the cough reflex. The cough clears the breathing passage and helps in easy inhalation and exhalation. It is a protective reflex and involves three phases. First, it involves inhaling the air, followed by a forced expiration. During this stage, the glottis remains closed. At the final stage, the glottis opens and allows rigorous expulsion of air from the lung cavity.


Coughing involves a distinct noise and is indicative of respiratory tract infection or disorder, allergy, asthma and other health conditions. It also occurs in response to pollution, smoking and some medications. It is of two types, dry cough and wet cough, which differ in their characteristics and cause of occurrence.

Characteristics of Dry Cough and Wet Cough

Understanding the characteristics of dry cough and wet cough will help understand their difference better.


Dry Cough: 

Dry cough, also known as non-productive cough, occurs in response to irritants but does not produce any kind of phlegm. It often leads to a tickling sensation in the respiratory tract. Chronic dry cough sometimes causes difficulty in breathing and hampers sleep schedule.


Causes of Dry cough:

One of the primary causes of dry cough is asthma which often leads to inflammation in the respiratory passage. This cough can be chronic and lead to severe discomfort and difficulty in breathing. The cough goes away with medications like budesonide and fluticasone.


Allergies are also considered to be one of the common reasons for dry cough. Different people may show allergic reactions to different substances. The dry cough is accompanied by wheezing and shortness of breath and can be relieved by antihistamines and other over-the-counter allergy medicines.


Sometimes, viral infections like COVID-19 and bacterial infections like Tuberculosis often lead to dry cough instead of producing phlegm. Other common reasons for dry cough are heart diseases, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and others.


The less common causes of dry cough include lung cancer, sudden lung deflation, smoking cigarettes, and environmental irritants like dust, soot and others. Sometimes, medications like ACE inhibitors also lead to dry cough.


Wet Cough:  

Wet cough occurs in response to an irritant or an infection and is characterized by the production of mucus or phlegm. Hence, it is also known as a productive cough. It is a condition in which the body produces mucus in excess, more than the optimal amount. It often results in discomfort as one might experience mucus being stuck in their chest or throat. The discomfort increases if there is a thickening of the mucus. Once the mucus gets stuck at the back of the throat as one lies down the coughing gets severe.


Causes of Wet Cough: 

The most common cause of a wet cough is the flu, caused due to viral infection. Other infections in the respiratory tract like pneumonia, whooping cough and bronchitis also lead to excess phlegm production and hence a wet cough. Viral infections like adenovirus that affect the upper respiratory tract also cause wet cough.


Other pulmonary conditions like Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD), pulmonary edema and cystic fibrosis also cause mucus production.


Mostly, infections are the primary reason behind a wet cough, unlike a dry cough and treating the infection ameliorates the cough. Cough medications, bronchodilators and steam inhalation work best for treating a wet cough.


Differences Between Dry Cough and Wet Cough

S.No

Category

Dry Cough

Wet Cough


Symptoms and Characteristics

A dry cough does not produce any phlegm or mucus. If associated with asthma and allergy, it often causes symptoms like wheezing and shortness of breath.

A wet cough causes excess mucus production in the body and hence brings up phlegm during the reflex. If associated with flu, it is accompanied by symptoms like runny nose and sneezing. 


Primary Cause

The primary cause of dry cough is an inflammation in the respiratory tract due to asthma or an allergic response of the body towards an environmental irritant.

The primary cause of wet cough is viral flu or other infection of the respiratory tract, like pneumonia and bronchitis,  caused by microorganisms.


Other causes 

Sometimes heart failure, GERD, and medications like ACE inhibitors also lead to dry cough.

COPD, pulmonary edema, and very rarely asthma also cause wet cough.


Other name 

It is also known as a non-productive cough.

It is also known as a productive cough.


Duration 

Wet cough lasts between 2-8 weeks, depending on whether it is acute or chronic.

Dry coughs are often persistent and even last for a month until the irritant is removed from the respiratory tract. 


Summary

To summarise, this article sheds light on the dry cough and wet cough difference. It also explains their characteristics and the reasons behind their occurrence. Though there are some stark differences between them in terms of mucus production, both dry cough and wet cough can result in discomfort and adversely affect a person’s lifestyle. A person needs medication to alleviate the effects of both dry cough and wet cough.

FAQs on Differences Between Dry Cough and Wet Cough

1. What is the main difference between dry and wet cough?

The predominant difference between dry cough and wet cough is that the latter produces excess phlegm, whereas the former does not. Thus, a dry cough is known as a non-productive cough, and a wet cough is called a productive cough. Also, dry cough occurs as a reflex to an irritant or allergy in the respiratory tract. It can last up to several weeks or even months unless the irritant is expelled. On the other hand, wet cough results due to the flu or respiratory infection by microbes and goes away within a few weeks.

2. What are the treatments for dry cough and wet cough?

Since dry cough results due to inflammation, and asthma and allergy are its common causes, treating the conditions alleviates dry cough. Medications like dextromethorphan, budesonide and albuterol can relieve asthma-related dry cough issues, whereas antihistamines and other allergy medications could suppress dry cough.


Treating flu-like symptoms with antibiotics, or using bronchodilators can ameliorate wet cough-like symptoms. Steam inhalation is one of the best home remedies to clear the air passage of mucus and cure wet cough.

3. How are wet cough and dry cough diagnosed?

Though coughs are often harmless and go away with medications, persistent coughs can be associated with underlying health conditions. So when a patient presents with a cough, be it dry or wet, to understand the severity of it, a doctor may run some tests to understand the diagnosis holistically. Usually, a spirometry test is suggested for a patient with a chronic dry cough. Bloodwork, chest X-ray, pulmonary function tests and sputum analysis are prescribed for someone with a severe wet cough.