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What Type Is Your Cough? -- Do You Cough up Anything Yucky?

Clues About a Cough : Page 4

By , Caring.com contributing editor
Last updated: May 15, 2014
95% helpful
Nurse comforting a worried senior man while at the hospital

Nope, it's a dry cough.

A dry cough (in which nothing comes up from the lungs but air) is the usual aftermath of catching a cold. Depending on the severity of the infection, it can be muffled or loud, a series of short little coughs or great noisy hacks. Other coughs that are sometimes dry: a smoker's cough in early stages of lung dysfunction or some types of asthma-related coughs.

Yes, I cough up a light (clear to pale yellow) mucus.

Mucus is the stuff that moisturizes your nose and keeps the passages clean. (You might know it as phlegm or sputum -- same stuff.) Colds and the flu tend to produce colorless or pale mucus. Sometimes there's a lot of it, which must be blown out through the nose, coughed up, or swallowed. It's a myth, by the way, that it's bad for you to swallow the gunk.

A cough with excessive mucus (of any color) most days of the month is a key feature of chronic bronchitis.

Yes, I cough up greenish or tan phlegm.

"Green stuff," contrary to commonly held belief, does not particularly indicate a treatable bacterial infection, unless it's accompanied by other symptoms such as moderate-to-high fever or shortness of breath. Coughs producing green phlegm are common after viral infections, which are the most common cause of acute bronchitis. (Studies have found that people with garden-variety bronchitis don't benefit from antibiotics.) If you're worried that green phlegm might be pneumonia, talk to a doctor. If you have other worrisome symptoms, you may need a chest X-ray to check for pneumonia. (People who are over age 65 or who have a chronic lung or heart illness should consider the pneumonia vaccine, which can lessen symptoms if pneumonia develops.)
The mucus coughed up with chronic bronchitis or emphysema tends to be in the green-brown-tan family. During a COPD exacerbation -- a sudden worsening of symptoms -- the secreted mucus may get thicker, darker, and harder to cough up. That's because the airways are narrowing further.

Yes, I cough up a little red stuff.

Seeing blood (any reddish shade from pink to rust) in mucus warrants consulting a doctor. Sometimes blood-streaked mucus shows up in the smoker's cough associated with COPD. Pneumonia, tuberculosis, and lung cancer are other serious concerns producing bloodied sputum. Frothy pinkish mucus may indicate pulmonary edema, an accumulation of fluid in the lungs' air sacs, which can be caused by a bad lung infection or a problem such as heart failure. Shortness of breath with frothy pink mucus is usually considered an emergency-room situation.