22 July 2019

Understanding the different kinds of coughs

Sponsored: Winter is here, and with it comes colds, flu and a nagging cough. Here's what you need to know about the different kinds of coughs.

You usually know you're about to cough – that annoying tickle in the back of your throat gives you a warning before a burst of air is forced out of your mouth.

With the winter months upon us, it's quite possible that you'll be hit with a cold or flu, and with it an annoying cough. 

Anatomy of a cough

Coughing is a neuronal reflex caused by the vagus nerve. When nerve endings located in the larynx or lower airway are triggered, your body's natural reflex is to cough.

Coughs can be caused by an irritation in your airway, such as small particles; microorganisms; mucus or even food that goes down the wrong pipe; or by an infection due to a cold or the flu.

A cough typically starts when you breathe in. Pressure in your throat and lungs increases when the vocal cords close. When your vocal cords reopen (to release the build-up of pressure), there's an explosive release of air, which creates the characteristic sound of a cough.

The average cough fills approximately three-quarters of a two-litre bottle with air and expels around 3 000 droplets that travel out of your mouth at speeds of about 80km/h – so make sure you always cover your mouth when you cough!3

Different kinds of coughs 

Coughs are classified as either wet or dry, acute or chronic. No matter what type of cough you have, you'll find a Benylin product to help soothe the symptoms. 

Wet vs dry4

When you have a cold or flu, you may suffer from one of the following types of coughs:

1. Dry, tickling or non-productive cough

  • Symptoms include a persistent/constant tickle, a hacking cough with no mucus expelled and a sensitive throat.

2. Wet, chesty or productive cough

  • Symptoms include coughing up mucus, wheezing, a tight chest and difficulty breathing.

Acute vs chronic.5 Coughs are also classified according to how long you've had them. 

1.  Acute cough

  • Symptoms: The cough begins suddenly and lasts between two to three weeks.
  • Causes: Colds, flu and acute bronchitis

2.  Chronic cough

  • Symptoms: The cough lasts longer than two to three weeks, and comes and goes.
  • Causes: Chronic bronchitis, asthma, smoking, allergies and medicines

Over-the-counter treatments

Fortunately a cough can often be alleviated with effective over-the-counter remedies such as those included in the Benylin range. It's a good idea to speak to your pharmacist and discuss what to use depending on the type of cough you have.

For wet or productive coughs:

  • Broncholytics6 open the bronchial passages.
  • Expectorants7 help clear the mucus or phlegm.
  • Mucolytics8 liquify thick mucus or phlegm.

For dry or non-productive coughs:

  • Anti-inflammatories9 reduce inflammation caused by coughing.
  • Cough suppressants10 help reduce the urge to cough and soothe painful, irritated chests.

1. Yella Hewings-Martin PhD[Internet] Flu and colds: Why do we cough? Medical News today [Updated 2017 November 28; cited 2019 July 10]. Available from:
2. Health 24. [Internet] SEE: When you cough, this is what happens to your body.[Updates 2017  October 18; cited 2019 July 10]. Available from: 
3. Jason Socrates Bardi [Internet] The Gross Science of a Cough and a Sneeze. Live Science; [2009 June 14; 2019 July 10.] Available from:
4. Health Freedom Allinace [Internet] 8 Different Coughs, Their Symptoms And What Each Means For Your Health. Health Freedom Alliance.[Cited 2019 July 10] Available from:
5. Medine Plus [Internet] Cough. Medine Plus [Update 2019 February 7, Cited 2019 July 10]. Available from:
6. The Free Dictionary [Internet] Bronchodilators. The Free Dictionary;[Cited 2019 July 10] Available from:  
7. The Free Dictionary [Internet] Expectorants. The Free Dictionary; [Cited 2019 July 10] Available from:
8. The Free Dictionary [Internet]Mucolytics. The Free Dictionary;[Cited 2019 July 10] Available from: 
9. The Free Dictionary [Internet]Anti-inflammatory. The Free Dictionary;[Cited 2019 July 10] Available from:
10. WebMD[Internet] Cough Suppressant Liquid. WebMD. [Cited 2019 July 10] Available from:


Ask the Expert

Cough Expert

Professor Keertan Dheda has received several prestigious awards including the 2014 Oppenheimer Award, and has published over 160 peer-reviewed papers and holds 3 patents related to new TB diagnostic or infection control technologies. He serves on the editorial board of the journals PLoS One, the International Journal of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease, American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Medicine, Lancet Respiratory Diseases and Nature Scientific Reports, amongst others. Read his full biography at the University of Cape Town Lung Institute.

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