Coughing serves an important function of expelling excessive mucus and unwanted irritants, such as dust and chemicals, from our throat and airways. Removing these substances helps to clear the way for air to flow freely into our lungs.
Our bodies produce extra mucus as an immune response to an illness, and coughing may therefore be a symptom of a respiratory infection. However, coughing could also accompany other respiratory diseases such as asthma. How can you tell between the different types of cough? When should you seek medical attention? Sometimes, the characteristics of your cough can indicate its cause.
Duration of the cough
Coughing can be broadly categorised into three major groups based on duration: acute, sub-acute and chronic. Here’s what each of these terms mean:
An acute cough lasts up to 3 weeks. The main cause of acute coughs is the common cold. However, you should watch out for any signs that may indicate an urgent need for medical attention. Such signs may include extreme shortness of breath, swelling in your lips, coughing up blood, or turning blue in your lips and fingertips.
A cough is categorised as sub-acute if it persists anywhere between 3 to 8 weeks in adults. This may be due to a cold or lung infection that has dragged on longer than normal, and may require a visit to the doctor’s.
A cough is considered to be chronic if it lasts longer than 8 weeks in adults, and longer 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.
Types of cough
There are four common kinds of cough, each with largely 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.
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.
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, 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.
Before your cough gets too serious, you should consider home remedies or consult a doctor, especially if it has lasted longer than 8 weeks (or 3 weeks for children).
Delange, Jacqueline. Types Of Cough By Sound: ‘The Doctors’ Diagnose With Their Ears (VIDEO). 2018. Electronic. 6 December 2018. https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/03/07/types-of-cough-by-sound_n_1326502.html
Levine, Hallie. 7 Kinds of Cough and What They Mean. 9 October 2018. Electronic. 6 December 2018. https://www.health.com/cold-flu-sinus/whats-causing-your-cough
Nall, Rachel. What causes a chronic cough? 24 April 2018. Electronic. 6 December 2018. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321597.php?sr
O’Keefe Osborn, Corrine. What Does My Type of Cough Mean? 2018. Electronic. 6 December 2018. https://www.healthline.com/health/types-of-coughs
Parents. Cough Symptoms and Treatment. 2018. Electronic. 6 December 2018. https://www.parents.com/health/cough/cough/
The Lung Association. Chronic Cough. 2018. Electronic. 6 December 2018. https://lungontario.ca/a-to-z/chronic-cough