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
myDr
©Copyright: myDr, Cirrus Media Pty Ltd, 2000-2016. All rights reserved.

References

  • 1. Cough (revised October 2009; amended February 2012). In: eTG complete. Melbourne: Therapeutic Guidelines Limited; 2014 Mar. http://online.tg.org.au/complete/ (accessed Mar 2014).

    2. Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne. Kids Health Info: Cough (updated Dec 2012) http://www.rch.org.au/kidsinfo/fact_sheets/Cough/# (accessed Mar 2014).

    3. MayoClinic.com. Cough (updated 24 May 2013). http://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/cough/basics/definition/sym-20050846 (accessed Mar 2014).

    4. NHS Choices. Cough (updated 20 Jun 2013). http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/cough/pages/introduction.aspx (accessed Mar 2014).

    5. US National Library of Medicine; National Institutes of Health. MedlinePlus. Cough (updated 25 May 2011). http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003072.htm (accessed Mar 2014).

    6. NHS Choices. Chest infection, adult (updated 14 May 2012). http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Chest-infection-adult/Pages/Symptoms.aspx (accessed Mar 2014).