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Coughing Up Phlegm: What Does It Mean?

"Why Am I Coughing Up Phlegm?"

Adam Partridge, PA-C - Genexa Healthcare Provider & Partner Profile Photo

Written by Adam Partridge, PA-C - Genexa Healthcare Provider & Partner on July 28, 2021

Medically reviewed by Camille Freking, MS Pharmacology

Not only can coughing up phlegm be a concerning symptom, but it can also be an annoying and highly uncomfortable symptom.
A cough that produces mucus is also known as a wet cough, and the most common reasons for this kind of cough are various forms of illness. That said, it can sometimes be tough to figure out the culprit on your own, because many illnesses and infections share symptoms.

This is your complete guide to a wet cough and how you can find relief.

What Causes a Wet Cough? A General Overview

A wet cough is one that produces phlegm or mucus, and this mucus comes from your lungs or sinuses. Because of this, a wet cough is a sign that something isn’t right.

Common causes of a wet cough include:

  • The flu
  • Common cold
  • Allergies
  • Bronchitis
  • Pneumonia

When it comes to bronchitis, a case of acute bronchitis will cause a cough that starts quickly and can go away rather quickly, too. Sometimes though, a wet cough may become chronic, and the coughing will stick around for a while.

Common causes of a chronic wet cough include:

Postnasal drip, which can be the result of allergies, irritants in the air, a cold, or a sinus infection

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which is recognizable because of the chronic combination of a wet cough, wheezing, and shortness of breath

Bronchiectasis, which entails mucus pooling in the lungs such that it cannot be cleared because of bronchial wall thickening.

Chronic pneumonia

If your cough is accompanied by a fever, breathlessness, chest pain, or blood in the phlegm that you cough up, you should consult your doctor promptly to get to the bottom of it. Additionally, a cough that becomes chronic should also be discussed with your doctor so that you can find the cause and start an appropriate treatment plan.

How To Know If Your Wet Cough is Bronchitis

Bronchitis is a very common cause of a wet cough, and it happens when the lining of your bronchial tubes becomes inflamed. Most times, bronchitis develops at the tail-end of a cold or other infection, and when this happens, it is called acute bronchitis.

Bronchitis can also be chronic, however, and this can entail repeated instances of bronchitis or one instance of bronchitis that is prolonged.

In cases of acute bronchitis, symptoms include a wet cough, production of mucus, fatigue, shortness of breath, and chest discomfort. You may also experience cold symptoms like headaches or body aches. Typically, the bulk of the symptoms will resolve in a week or so, but the cough from acute bronchitis can linger for several weeks.

Cases of chronic bronchitis are characterized by periods of time where the cough or other symptoms worsen, and your productive cough may last anywhere from three months to two years. Alternatively, you may experience repeated cases of bronchitis for those two years, and this is still a sign that you are dealing with chronic bronchitis.

If you suspect you may have bronchitis, either acute or chronic, it is important to consult a doctor so that you can get a proper diagnosis. Your doctor may perform chest X-rays, mucus tests, or pulmonary function tests to make a diagnosis, and if prescription medication is deemed necessary you will be given a prescription. Most times, bronchitis is caused by a viral infection, but if your doctor suspects a bacterial infection, you will probably be given antibiotics.

Antibiotics or other medicine will not always be necessary, though. Most cases of bronchitis will actually go away on their own within a couple of weeks. Even still, you should talk to your doctor if you think you have bronchitis, because, as mentioned above, antibiotics are sometimes needed if your infection is being caused by bacteria.

That said, the symptoms of bronchitis can still be pretty uncomfortable, so here are some ways that you can find relief from your cough.

How To Find Relief From Your Wet Cough

Though unpleasant, coughing is actually necessary in order to rid your lungs of mucus. Coughs can, however, become uncomfortable, and when this is the case, there are some ways that you can relieve your symptoms at home.

Home remedies for a wet cough include:

  • Drinking plenty of fluids: Staying hydrated helps thin and loosen the mucus in your sinuses and airways, thus making it easier for your body to get rid of when you cough.
  • Elevating your head at night: Using an extra pillow or two to elevate your head before going to sleep can help ease a cough by preventing mucus from pooling at the back of your throat.
  • Adding moisture to the air: Dry air can aggravate coughs by irritating your throat and airways, so adding moisture to the air by using a humidifier or vaporizer may bring you some relief. Alternatively, you can also choose to run a hot shower and then sit in the steam to soothe your cough.
  • Trying cough drops: Cough drops can be a quick and easy way to get some relief from a cough, and these may especially come in handy if you are experiencing coughing attacks or if your symptoms make it hard to fall asleep. Just take care to avoid falling asleep with a cough drop in your mouth, as this is a choking hazard.

Cough suppressants or expectorants may also come in handy. Suppressants work to control or suppress the cough reflex, making them best for dry, nagging coughs. On the other hand, expectorants can help make it easier for you to cough up the mucus in your body, and thus are most helpful for wet, productive coughs.

If your cough does not respond to medicine or home remedies, this is a sign that it is time to talk to your doctor. This is sometimes an indication that your cough may be something more serious, and if this is the case your doctor will be able to give you a diagnosis and advise you when it comes to the proper treatment plan. Even if your cough is not something serious, your doctor may be able to recommend other medicines or products that you have not yet tried.

The Bottom Line

More often than not, a wet cough is an indication of some form of illness. Common causes of a wet cough include the common cold, allergies, the flu, pneumonia, and bronchitis. Getting to the bottom of it can be tough to do on your own because many illnesses and infections have overlapping symptoms. Thus, if you are struggling to identify the cause of your symptoms, it is important to consult a doctor so that you can get a proper diagnosis.

Bronchitis is a very common cause for a wet cough, and most cases may actually clear up without treatment in 7-10 days, but the cough can linger for weeks, and has the potential to become chronic.

Home remedies for a wet cough include drinking plenty of liquids, adding moisture to the air with a humidifier or vaporizer, and elevating your head at night.
For any cough that will not respond to treatment, it is necessary to visit your doctor. They will be able to make sure nothing more serious is going on, and they can recommend any medications you might need.


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