Boy coughing

Coughing serves an important function. Specifically, it clears excess mucus and unwanted irritants from our throat and airways. Hence, enabling air to flow freely into our lungs. However, not all types of cough have the same purpose.

In fact, illnesses often trigger our bodies to produce extra mucus. Thus, in such situations, coughing may be a symptom of an underlying health issue. In that case, how can you tell between the different types of cough?

Table of Contents:

  1. Main categories of coughs
  2. Types of coughs

1. Main categories of coughs

Coughing can be broadly categorised into three major groups based on duration: acute, sub-acute, and chronic.


An acute cough lasts up to 3 weeks. Common colds are the main cause of these coughs. However, you should watch out for these signs that may indicate an urgent need for medical attention:

  • Extreme shortness of breath,
  • Swelling of lips,
  • Coughing up blood, or
  • Blue lips and fingertips.

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A cough is categorised as sub-acute if it lasts for 3 to 8 weeks in adults. This may be due to a cold or lung infection that has dragged on longer than usual and may require a visit to the doctors.


A cough is considered to be chronic if it lasts longer than 8 weeks in adults and more than 3 weeks in children. Chronic coughs can be caused by allergies, asthma, smoking, or severe illnesses such as lung cancer. If you have a cough that is chronic, it is advisable to seek treatment and determine the exact cause.

2. Types of cough

There are four common types of cough, each with very distinct characteristics. Paying close attention to the symptoms will give you clues on what your body is trying to tell you, and when you should seek help.

Wet cough

A wet cough is characterised by mucus and fluid secretions in the windpipe and lungs. These secretions can be brought about by acute conditions including a cold, influenza, and infections. Depending on the duration of your wet cough, you may consider over-the-counter medications or seek professional treatment. If your child has a wet cough, consult your paediatrician before using any form of medication.

Dry cough

Contrary to the wet cough, a dry cough is non-productive (coughing does not bring up phlegm or mucus), and may occur in response to an irritant, such as dust, that enters the airway. The use of an air purifier or humidifier may ease the discomfort brought about by coughing. A dry cough is also a common symptom of asthma. Therefore, if you, or your child, has a dry cough persisting for longer than 3 weeks, do arrange a visit to the doctor’s to determine its exact cause.


Croup is caused by a viral infection that results in swollen vocal chords and upper airways, and usually worsens at night. Due to the inflammation of the vocal chords, croup typically sounds like a harsh, “barking” cough. In addition, children may make high-pitched sounds during inhalation or breathe very rapidly. This can be frightening for both children and parents. Seek immediate medical attention if your child has any breathing difficulties. To alleviate mild symptoms of croup, take a steamy shower or place a cool-mist humidifier in your bedroom.

Whooping cough

Whooping cough, or pertussis, is characterised by severe coughing spells that conclude with a sharp gasp for breath. This gasp for breath has a “whooping” sound, thus giving the cough its name. Whooping cough is caused by a bacterial infection and requires antibiotic treatment, but can be prevented through vaccination. If you, or your child, has a whooping cough, seek treatment early. Family members and caregivers should also be treated since whooping cough is highly contagious.

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Before your cough gets too serious, you should consider home remedies or consult a doctor, especially if it lasts longer than 8 weeks (or 3 weeks for children).


Delange, Jacqueline. (2018). Types Of Cough By Sound: ‘The Doctors’ Diagnose With Their Ears (VIDEO).

Levine, Hallie. (2018, October 19). 7 Kinds of Cough and What They Mean.

Nall, Rachel. (2018, April 24). What causes a chronic cough?

O’Keefe Osborn, Corrine. (2018). What Does My Type of Cough Mean?

Cough Symptoms and Treatment. (2018). Parents.

Chronic Cough. (2018). The Lung Association.