Cough: productive or 'wet' cough

A productive or ‘wet’ cough is when you have a ‘rattly’ or ‘tight’ chest. You may feel congested and breathless, with the cough bringing up mucus or phlegm. Symptoms are worse when waking and when talking. The wet cough may be the last symptom left after a sore throat or nasal and sinus congestion.

Helpful tips for dealing with a productive cough

If you have a productive cough you should:

  • drink plenty of fluid;
  • take a hot steamy shower to help break down the mucus (phlegm) and make it easier to cough up;
  • keep warm;
  • have plenty of bed rest;
  • use paracetamol for fever and pain (but remember that some cough mixtures and cold remedies also contain paracetamol, so don’t overdose); and
  • take an expectorant to help the expulsion of mucus from the lungs.

Things you should NOT do:

  • Do not take a cough suppressant as this suppresses the cough, causing a build up of mucus (phlegm) in the lungs and increasing the risk of infection;
  • Do not take antihistamines, as these tend to dry up the secretions and leave them in the lungs;and
  • Do not take combination cough mixtures with a cough suppressant and an expectorant.

When should you seek medical advice about a productive cough?

You should seek medical advice if:

  • you cough up blood (fresh blood or dried blood like coffee granules);
  • you have a high temperature;
  • you are short of breath or wheezy;
  • the cough is mainly at night;
  • you have chest pain when coughing;
  • the cough has changed;
  • you are a cigarette smoker;
  • you have other symptoms such as an ongoing headache, sore ears or a rash;
  • you have recently lost weight;
  • the productive, wet cough has lasted longer than 5 days;
  • the cough affects an infant or child under 5 years old; or
  • you have high blood pressure, a heart complaint, respiratory illness (such as asthma), gastric problems, glaucoma, or are taking other medicines.

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