Productive Coughs

Topic Overview

A productive cough helps clear mucus (sputum) and foreign material from the airways. Mucus may be made in the lungs because of bronchitis, pneumonia, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Colds and allergies may produce mucus that drains down the back of the throat (postnasal drainage). Home treatment may be all that is needed to provide relief if you have a productive cough and postnasal drainage but do not have other symptoms.

A productive cough in a person who smokes is often a sign of lung damage. For smokers, the most effective way to treat a cough is to stop smoking. A change in the cough or in the color or quantity of sputum may mean a bacterial lung infection.

A productive cough is a more serious when:

  • It produces sputum from the lungs (not postnasal drainage).
  • The sputum is rust-colored or contains bright red blood.
  • It lasts longer than 10 days.
  • It occurs with other symptoms. These may include:
    • Fever and chills.
    • Shortness of breath.
    • Chest pain.
    • Night sweats.
    • Weight loss.
  • You have a known exposure to tuberculosis.

A doctor can evaluate your symptoms and recommend appropriate treatment.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer David Messenger, MD
Last Revised December 21, 2011

Last Revised: December 21, 2011

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