Coughing is your body’s way of removing foreign material or mucus from your lungs and upper airway passages, or of reacting to an irritated airway.

Productive coughs

A productive cough produces phlegm or mucus (sputum). The mucus may come from the back of your throat, nose or sinuses or up from your lungs. There are many different causes of a productive cough.

  • Viral illnesses – it is normal to have a productive cough with a common cold. Coughing is triggered by mucus draining down the back of your throat.
  • Infections – an infection of the lungs or upper airway passages such as pneumonia, bronchitis or tuberculosis will cause a productive cough.
  • Chronic lung disease – a productive cough could be a sign that a disease such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is getting worse or an infection has started.
  • Stomach acid backing up into your oesophagus (the tube that goes from your throat to your stomach) – this type of cough may be a symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease and may wake you from sleep.
  • Smoking or other tobacco use – if you smoke, a productive cough can be a sign of lung damage.
  • Asthma – this can sometimes produce a sticky mucus because the airways are inflamed and irritated during an asthma attack.

Non-productive coughs

A non-productive cough is a dry, often hacking cough that may develop at the end of a cold or after exposure to an irritant. There are many different causes of a non-productive cough.

  • Viral illnesses – after a cold, you may have a dry cough for several weeks which often gets worse at night.
  • Bronchospasm – this is a spasm of the bronchial tubes caused by irritation, particularly at night.
  • Allergies – hay fever can cause a tickly throat, or the mucus from sneezing can irritate your throat and make you cough.
  • Medicines – ACE inhibitors that are used to control high blood pressure can cause a cough.
  • Irritants – exposure to dust, fumes and chemicals can make you cough.
  • Asthma – a dry cough may be a sign of mild asthma.
  • Blockage – if something gets stuck in your airway, such as food or a pill, you will usually cough.

When to see your doctor

See your doctor if you have a cough that:

  • causes shortness of breath, severe pain or you cough up blood
  • seems to have no cause
  • lasts for a month or more.

Call Healthline 0800 611 116 if you are unsure what you should do.


Your doctor may prescribe a cough suppressant, decongestants, antihistamines, antibiotics or steroids, depending on the cause of your cough.


  • Breathe warm, moist air (humidified), such as in the bathroom while the shower is running.
  • Drink more fluids.
  • Warm soothing liquids help relieve coughing spasms – apple juice or a mixture of lemon and honey (half a teaspoon of each) is soothing. Do not give honey to children under 12 months because of the risk of botulism.
  • Over-the-counter cough medicine from your pharmacist may help. These medicines are not recommended for children under 6.
  • Coughing up mucus is important to protect your lungs against pneumonia, so take a cough suppressant only if you are finding it hard to sleep.
  • Elevate the head of your bed or sleep propped up on pillows.
  • Avoid exposure to smoke.
  • Dissolve half a teaspoon of salt in 1 cup of warm water and put 2 or 3 drops in each nostril, then blow your nose. This can help clear mucus and soothe your cough.

This topic sheet was provided by Healthline.

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