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Wet cough

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 4 minutes read
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A cough is the body's natural way of responding to irritation in your respiratory tract, causing muscles in the airways to contract and push out any irritant or infection in a burst of air. Your airways are covered in cells that produce mucus which aids in the removal of dust, bacteria, viruses, and other debris.

When you get a chest infection, your body produces more mucus than normal as it tries to remove the virus or bacteria. The excess mucus, known as phlegm or sputum, causes you to cough more frequently and forcefully – phlegm is then brought up and spat out or swallowed, destroying the pathogen and helping you recover. We call this a productive cough.

Most chest infections and productive coughs are caused by viruses rather than bacteria. As antibiotics only work on bacterial infections, this means that they won't have any effect on most chest infections.

Doctor’s advice

Next steps

Starting small by taking it easy, getting good amounts of sleep, and ensuring that you are eating and drinking well – this will all help. Because mucus is mostly made from water, it can be easy to become dehydrated while you are experiencing a productive cough, especially if you have a fever, too. Hence it is important to take extra steps to ensure you are adequately hydrated throughout the day.

You can try some simple over-the-counter treatments to help with your symptoms. Healthwords pharmacists have put together some of our favorite medications that can be purchased to help with a productive cough.

Healthwords pharmacists' top tips

These treatments will not stop your cough but may help to relieve your symptoms. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen can be used to relieve pain in your throat or respiratory muscles from coughing.

Simple Linctus or a warm honey and lemon drink can soothe your throat, and cough sweets or lozenges work in the same way if you're out and about. Guaifenesin cough syrup may help shift some of your phlegm.

How can I stop my cough from interrupting my sleep?

It is relatively common to find that your productive cough is worse at night and is affecting your sleep. This is likely due to the fact mucus pools at the back of the lungs due to gravity when you're lying down, and this irritates the lung lining, causing a cough reflex.

If this is the case, you can try the previous simple remedies and add a sleep aid such as the antihistamine diphenhydramine. The cough suppressant dextromethorphan can often be found in combination with diphenhydramine to relieve nighttime coughing.

When should I see my doctor?

Most coughs get better by themselves within two weeks with rest, plenty of fluids, and throat-soothing treatments as necessary. In some cases, symptoms can last for up to three weeks. You should book a routine appointment to discuss with your doctor if your cough is not improving after two weeks, you have asthma, or you are concerned about your symptoms.

This can also be a sign of COVID-19, so you should consider ordering a PCR test and isolate until you have a result.

You should speak to your doctor urgently or go to your local emergency department if:

  • your symptoms are severe, and not responding to pharmacy medications
  • you are finding it hard to catch your breath
  • you are finding difficulty in maintaining fluids or bringing your fever down with medication
  • you are coughing up blood
  • you are a smoker and are suddenly losing weight

If you are immunocompromised because of medication or a condition or have long-term medical conditions such as diabetes, heart, lung, kidney, or neurological illnesses, you should also speak to your doctor.

Your doctor will listen to your concerns and symptoms and take note of other medical conditions, medications, and any family history. They will take your vital signs, including breathing rate, heart rate, oxygen content in your tissues, and blood pressure. They will listen to your heart and chest and may look at your throat.

They may send you for further investigations, such as a chest X-ray, blood tests, take any mucus sample or throat swab, and they will refer you to a hospital team if necessary.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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