Authored by Revere Health

Types of Coughs and What They Mean

February 17, 2017 | Family Medicine

Coughing is your body’s natural response to an irritant in your throat or airway, and while coughing is often necessary to rid the throat of irritation, it can be uncomfortable, annoying and even painful.

Identifying the cause of the cough is vital, and it can help tell you whether you need to see a doctor or whether you can treat it on your own. Here are some of the most common causes of cough, and how you can address them.


People with asthma have inflamed airways, causing bouts of coughing and wheezing. Asthma-related coughing usually gets worse at night or while exercising. Many people with asthma learn to notice their symptoms, which include chest tightness and shortness of breath.

If you are exhibiting symptoms of asthma and haven’t been tested, speak with your doctor. He or she will most likely order a lung function test, and if diagnosed, they can prescribe medications to help ease symptoms.

Postnasal Drip

This occurs when mucus deep in the throat, often the result of allergies or a cold, tickles nerve endings and causes a cough. It can be either wet or dry, and usually gets worse at night. If allergies are causing the cough, itchy eyes or sneezing might give it away. In these cases, antihistamines will usually clear the issue up. For non-allergy situations, though, natural remedies like steam and saline washes are recommended unless they cough continues after a week, in which case you may have a sinus infection and should see your doctor.


The short form for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, COPD is mainly caused by smoking. COPD symptoms are usually worse earlier in the day, but improve as the day progresses. Most types of bronchitis and emphysema fall under COPD.

If COPD is the culprit of your cough, you’ll notice a chronic, hacking cough with lots of mucus. If you haven’t been diagnosed with COPD but are showing symptoms of it, you should see your doctor. They can prescribe medications, and help you quit smoking if that is a contributing factor to your COPD diagnosis.


Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) involves a backup of stomach acid in the esophagus, and is one of the most common causes of chronic cough. It produces a dry cough and gets worse when lying down or eating. Some GERD patients also have heartburn. Most GERD cases can be treated with over-the-counter medications.


Pneumonia can be a serious condition. It initially starts as a dry cough that turns wet after a few days and is accompanied by colorful mucus (e.g., yellow, green, red, rust-tinged). Its symptoms include fever or chills, discomfort or difficulty while breathing, or painful coughing. Pneumonia needs to be diagnosed by a doctor, and is either classified as viral or bacterial. Viral cases can only be treated by rest and over-the-counter cough medication, while bacterial pneumonia can be treated with antibiotics.


Also called whooping cough, pertussis is a severe cough that gives a distinct “whooping” noise when you breathe in. Pertussis is rare, but symptoms can be similar to those of the common cold until intense coughing symptoms surface. Whooping cough is treated with antibiotics, and you need to see a doctor to be diagnosed.


Some coughs are caused by medications for other conditions. The most common cough-causing medications are ACE inhibitors, which are prescribed for high blood pressure. This is typically a dry cough that starts a few weeks after you begin taking the medication. You’ll need to speak to your doctor, but there’s a good chance you can solve the problem by simply switching medications.

When to See a Doctor

In addition to these specific cases where you should see a doctor, there are a few instances where you or your child should immediately see a doctor regardless of which type of cough you may have. These include:

  • Consistently coughing up phlegm and wheezing
  • Fever over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, which won’t break
  • Shortness of breath or trouble swallowing
  • Choking
  • Coughing up blood or blood-colored phlegm


If you have chronic cough symptoms and can’t figure out where they might be coming from, speak to your doctor about how to pinpoint the cause and treat your symptoms.


Our providers take time to listen and communicate clearly with each patient, and our professional and courteous staff provides quality, personalized care for all of our patients’ general health and medical needs. We specialize in weight control, depression management, skin care, hormone replacement, cardiac conditions and cholesterol management. We strive to provide our patients and their families with quality healthcare services and respect their right to participate in all treatment decisions.



“Cough: When to see a doctor.” The Mayo Clinic.

“7 Kinds of Coughs and What They Might Mean.”

The Live Better Team


The Live Better Team

Telehealth is not appropriate for every medical concern, so it’s important to ask your provider whether a virtual visit is suitable for your needs.

Learn more about Telehealth

This information is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. You should always consult your doctor before making decisions about your health.