Zocdoc Answers

Medical questions & health advice by board certified doctors

"How do dry coughs and wet coughs differ?"


Is there a difference between wet coughs and dry coughs? What is the difference on the biological level? I want to treat my dry cough in the best way possible, but over the counter medicines never instruct a difference way of treating the two kinds of coughs.


Wet coughs and dry coughs are similar processes. They can however suggest a different cause of the cough. Regardless, if you have a persistent cough you should see your doctor to diagnose the condition and potentially treat it.

See a doctor who can help

Find a Pulmonologists near you

The cough reflex is a normal process. Irritation in the airways cause the body to start a cough, in an attempt to clear the airways. What causes the irritation is important as this is the true cause of the cough. A wet cough (and by that I mean one that produces sputum), is a hint that the cough is caused by inflammation. For example, a pneumonia (or an infection of the lungs by a bacteria, virus or fungus) causes pus to form in the airways and the cough the can clear the inflammation and therefore the cough is wet. A dry cough can be caused by other types of irritation. For example, irritants like cigarette smoke can cause a cough without the inflammation and therefore there is no sputum. Other causes of dry cough include asthma, acid reflux or other medicines. There are many others. This rule is not 100%. For example, some people have a pneumonia yet cannot bring up the pus so it is a dry cough. It is just a hint your doctor can use. In general, we are more worried about wet coughs. Knowing the cause of the cough is the only way to know how to treat it. Talk to your doctor.

Zocdoc Answers is for general informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor (in the United States) 911 immediately. Always seek the advice of your doctor before starting or changing treatment. Medical professionals who provide responses to health-related questions are intended third party beneficiaries with certain rights under Zocdoc’s Terms of Service.