Coughing 101: 
Understanding the different types of coughs

A cough is the body’s natural reflex to expel irritants or mucus from the airways. However, not all coughs are the same and therefore, not all coughs require the same treatment. Understanding the type of cough you have is key to knowing what medication you need to effectively treat it.

Coughs can interrupt our lives and have a major impact on school, work, and our daily routines, therefore, treating them as soon as possible is imperative. Imagine having a coughing fit just as you are starting an important presentation or while you are writing an exam. Very often determining the type of cough along with the cause of the cough can help you select the best treatment for it.
What is a cough?
According to, a cough is your body’s response to something that irritates your throat or airways. When a foreign particle enters your airway, the irritant stimulates the nerves in your lungs to send a message to your brain. The brain then tells the muscles in your chest and abdomen to push air out of your lungs and in so doing forcefully expel the irritant from your airways, resulting in a cough.

Coughs are usually classified into two different categories, namely dry (non-productive) coughs, and wet (productive) coughs.
Dry Cough:

A dry cough, also known as non-productive cough, is characterised by the absence of mucus or phlegm. It often presents as a tickling or scratching sensation in the throat, leading to persistent coughing. Dry coughs usually occur as a result of an irritant or inflammation of the airways.

Common causes of a dry cough include:

  • Viral infections: Infections such as the common cold or flu can trigger a dry cough, especially in the early stages.
  • Irritants: Environmental factors like dust, smoke, or strong odours can irritate the airways, leading to a dry cough.
  • Allergies: Allergic reactions to substances like pollen, pet dander, or certain foods can result in a dry, persistent cough.
Wet or Productive Cough:

Unlike a dry cough, a wet or productive cough is characterised by the presence of mucus or phlegm. This type of cough helps clear the respiratory system by expelling excess mucus or phlegm and is most often triggered by any condition that causes a build-up of fluid in the airways.

Common causes of a wet cough include:

  • Respiratory infections: Bacterial or viral infections, such as bronchitis or pneumonia, often result in a productive cough with yellow or greenish phlegm.
  • Chronic lung conditions: Conditions like chronic bronchitis or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can cause persistent, productive coughing.
  • Postnasal drip: Excessive mucus from the nose and sinuses can drip down the back of the throat, leading to a productive cough.
Treating a cough
Determining the reason for your cough is essential in deciding the appropriate treatment needed. In most cases treating the underlying cause of the cough, usually helps to soothe a cough. However, there are treatments available that can help to curb the different types of coughs.

Cough suppressant medications can help ease a dry (non-productive) cough by blocking the natural cough reflex. Many of these treatments work directly on the central nervous system and can, therefore, produce many side effects, such as blurred vision or dizziness.

Wet coughs often require an expectorant cough syrup to treat them. Synthetic expectorants often irritate the inner lining of the airways, causing you to cough. Other expectorants loosen the mucus or phlegm in the lungs so that it can easily be expelled from the body.

Various combination cough treatments on the market provide fast relief from both dry and wet coughs. South Africa’s no 1. prescribed and selling cough treatment, Prospan is an example of a cough medication that can treat all types of coughs. Prospan is safe and effective at relieving both productive (wet) and non-productive (dry) coughs and has been clinically shown to reduce inflammation, which causes both types of coughs. Discover more about this cough medication here.
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