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Productive (chesty) cough

Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed by Roger HendersonReviewed on 29.04.2024 | 7 minutes read

Coughs can prove to be quite bothersome. Typically stemming from viral or bacterial infections, new coughs can often be effectively managed at home without needing a doctor's visit.

Where to start?

Starting small by taking it easy, getting good amounts of sleep, and ensuring that you are eating and hydrated well will help. You can also try some simple over-the-counter treatments to help with your symptoms. Healthwords pharmacists have put together some of our favourite medications that can be purchased over the counter to help with a productive cough.

Doctor’s advice

Causes of productive coughs

Productive coughs can be caused by a wide range of underlying conditions affecting the respiratory system, including infections, inflammation, irritants, and structural abnormalities. Some common causes of productive coughs include:

Respiratory infections

Viral and bacterial infections of the respiratory tract, such as the common cold, flu (influenza), bronchitis, pneumonia, and sinusitis, can trigger inflammation and increased mucus production, resulting in a productive cough.

Chronic bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is characterised by inflammation of the bronchial tubes (airways) and excessive mucus production. Individuals with chronic bronchitis often experience recurrent episodes of productive coughs, particularly in the morning.


In asthma, inflammation and narrowing of the airways can lead to increased mucus production and difficulty clearing secretions, resulting in a productive cough, wheezing, and shortness of breath. This also applies to occupational asthma.


Allergic reactions to environmental triggers such as pollen, dust mites, pet dander, or certain foods can cause inflammation of the airways and increase mucus production, leading to a productive cough.


Smoking tobacco reatment Options for Productive Coughs or exposure to secondhand smoke can irritate the airways, impair mucociliary clearance, and increase mucus production, contributing to a chronic productive cough, particularly in individuals with chronic bronchitis or COPD.

Treatment options for productive Coughs

The treatment of a productive cough aims to address the underlying cause while providing symptomatic relief and promoting the clearance of mucus from the airways. Treatment options for productive coughs may vary depending on the underlying cause and severity of symptoms but may include the following:

  • Symptomatic relief. Over-the-counter cough suppressants or expectorants may be used to help alleviate cough symptoms and promote the clearance of mucus from the airways. Cough suppressants such as dextromethorphan can help reduce coughing, while expectorants such as guaifenesin can help loosen and thin mucus, making it easier to cough up.
  • Hydration. Staying well-hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids, such as water, herbal teas, or clear broths, can help thin mucus secretions and facilitate their expulsion from the airways. Avoiding caffeinated or alcoholic beverages, which can cause dehydration, is advisable.
  • Steam inhalation. Inhaling steam from a hot shower or a bowl of hot water can help moisten and loosen mucus secretions, making it easier to cough up. Adding menthol, Vicks or eucalyptus oil to the hot water may provide additional relief by helping to open up the airways and alleviate congestion.
  • Warm liquids. Drinking warm liquids such as herbal teas, warm water with honey and lemon, or chicken soup can help soothe the throat, relieve coughing, and provide temporary relief from chest congestion.
  • Humidification. Using a humidifier or vaporiser to add moisture to the air can help prevent dryness and irritation of the respiratory tract, making it easier to cough up mucus and alleviate cough symptoms. Ensure proper cleaning and maintenance of the humidifier to prevent bacterial or mould growth.
  • Physiotherapy. Chest physiotherapy techniques such as postural drainage, percussion, and vibration may be beneficial in facilitating the clearance of mucus from the airways, particularly in individuals with chronic respiratory conditions, heart failure or difficulty coughing effectively.
  • Avoiding irritants. Avoiding exposure to environmental irritants such as tobacco smoke, pollution, chemical fumes, or allergens can help reduce airway inflammation, minimise mucus production, and alleviate cough symptoms.
  • Smoking cessation. If the productive cough is related to smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke, quitting smoking is essential to prevent further damage to the respiratory tract, improve lung function, and reduce the risk of developing chronic respiratory conditions such as chronic bronchitis or COPD.
  • Antibiotics. In cases of bacterial respiratory infections such as bacterial pneumonia or acute exacerbations of chronic bronchitis, antibiotics may be prescribed to treat the underlying infection and alleviate symptoms. However, antibiotics are not effective against viral infections, and their inappropriate use can contribute to antibiotic resistance and other adverse effects.
  • Bronchodilators. In individuals with asthma or COPD, bronchodilator medications such as short-acting beta-agonists (e.g., salbutamol) or long-acting bronchodilators (e.g., salmeterol, formoterol) may be prescribed to help relax the airway muscles, improve airflow, and alleviate coughing and shortness of breath.
  • Corticosteroids. In cases of severe inflammation or exacerbations of chronic respiratory conditions such as asthma or COPD, oral or inhaled corticosteroids may be prescribed to reduce airway inflammation, suppress mucus production, and improve respiratory symptoms.

7 ways of preventing a productive cough

While some causes of productive coughs may be unavoidable, there are several strategies individuals can adopt to reduce the risk of developing respiratory infections or exacerbations of chronic respiratory conditions, thereby minimising the likelihood of experiencing a productive cough. These preventive measures include:

  1. Practising good hand hygiene - washing hands frequently with soap and water or using alcohol-based hand sanitisers can help prevent the spread of respiratory infections, including the common cold, flu, and COVID-19.

  2. Avoiding close contact - avoiding close contact with individuals who are sick or experiencing respiratory symptoms can help reduce the risk of contracting respiratory infections and developing a productive cough.

  3. Getting vaccinated - annual flu vaccine and routine vaccination against other respiratory infections can help reduce the risk of developing respiratory infections and complications, particularly in high-risk individuals such as older adults, young children, and individuals with underlying health conditions.

  4. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle - eating a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins, staying physically active, getting adequate sleep, and managing stress can help support a healthy immune system and reduce the risk of respiratory infections.

  5. Avoiding smoking and secondhand smoke - quitting smoking and avoiding exposure to secondhand smoke can help protect the respiratory tract, reduce airway inflammation, and minimise the risk of developing chronic respiratory conditions such as chronic bronchitis or COPD.

  6. Managing allergies - identifying and avoiding triggers for allergic reactions, such as pollen, dust mites, pet dander, or certain foods, can help prevent allergic rhinitis and allergic asthma, which may contribute to productive coughs.

  7. Maintaining indoor air quality - ensuring proper ventilation, minimising indoor air pollutants such as tobacco smoke, household chemicals, or mould, and using air purifiers or filters can help improve indoor air quality and reduce respiratory symptoms.

When should I see my doctor?

Most productive coughs get better by themselves within 2 weeks with rest, plenty of fluids, and painkillers as necessary.

In some cases, symptoms can last for up to 3 weeks.

You should book a routine appointment to discuss with your doctor if your cough is not improving after 2 weeks, or you are concerned about your symptoms.

If your symptoms are severe and not responding to painkillers, you are finding it difficult to maintain fluids or to bring your fever down with medication, speak to your doctor urgently or call 111 outside of working hours.

If you are immunocompromised because of medication or a condition, or you have long-term medical conditions such as heart, lung, kidney, or neurological illnesses, speak to your doctor. If you have a sudden loss of hearing without pain or any other signs of an ear or respiratory infection, you should seek urgent help from your doctor.

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Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed by Roger Henderson
Reviewed on 29.04.2024
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