Cough: productive or 'wet' cough

A productive (‘wet’ or chesty) cough is when you have a cough that produces mucus or phlegm (sputum). You may feel congested and have a ‘rattly’ or ‘tight’ chest.

Symptoms are often worse when waking up from sleep and when talking. The wet cough may be the last symptom left after a common cold infection.

Depending on the cause of your productive cough, other symptoms may include:

  • breathlessness;
  • fever;
  • cold and flu symptoms;
  • wheeze; and
  • chest pain.

Causes of chesty coughs

Causes of chesty (productive) coughs include:

Other, less common causes of a wet cough include:

  • bronchiectasis (a condition where the airways are damaged and abnormally wide causing a persistent, wet cough); and
  • cystic fibrosis (an inherited condition that causes excessively thick mucus secretions in the airways).

Diagnosis and tests

Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and perform a physical examination. Tests that may be useful in diagnosing the cause of a chesty cough include:

  • chest X-ray;
  • sputum analysis (a sample of the mucus or phlegm that you have coughed up can be tested – usually to find out the organism causing a chest infection);
  • blood tests; and
  • lung function tests.

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 medicines for other conditions.
Last Reviewed: 13 May 2014


1. Cough (revised October 2009; amended February 2012). In: eTG complete. Melbourne: Therapeutic Guidelines Limited; 2014 Mar. (accessed Mar 2014).
2. Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne. Kids Health Info: Cough (updated Dec 2012) (accessed Mar 2014).
3. Cough (updated 24 May 2013). (accessed Mar 2014).
4. NHS Choices. Cough (updated 20 Jun 2013). (accessed Mar 2014).
5. US National Library of Medicine; National Institutes of Health. MedlinePlus. Cough (updated 25 May 2011). (accessed Mar 2014).
6. NHS Choices. Chest infection, adult (updated 14 May 2012). (accessed Mar 2014).


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