Knowing the difference between a hacking dry cough and a productive wet cough is the first step in helping your child feel better. Here’s what parents need to know to about these common symptoms.

By Nicole Harris
June 02, 2020
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Coughs come in many forms, but they generally fall into two categories: wet and dry. Both types have different causes and treatment options, so it’s important to recognize the distinguishing factors when your child falls ill. Here’s everything you need to know about dry coughs and wet coughs in kids, babies, and toddlers.

What’s the Difference Between Wet and Dry Coughs?

Wet coughs, also known as productive coughs, bring up phlegm or mucus. This liquid comes from the respiratory tract, and it’s usually caused by viral or bacterial infections like influenza, the common cold, and pneumonia. Other symptoms—such as runny nose, sore throat, and fatigue—commonly accompany a child or toddler wet cough. Your kid may also experience postnasal drip, which feels like mucus running down the throat or chest.

On the other hand, dry coughs, also called unproductive coughs, don’t produce any mucus or phlegm, according to Hector de Leon, M.D., pediatrician for Kaiser Permanente in Colorado. Tell-tale characteristics include a tickle in the throat and hacking sounds. Dry coughs are usually caused by irritation from the upper respiratory tract—either from temporary conditions (such as environmental irritants, allergies, croup, or whooping cough) or chronic conditions (like asthma or GERD). Children may also develop a dry cough from residual mucus after a cold or flu; this could stick around for weeks.

How to Get Rid of a Cough

The preferred treatment for a wet or dry cough depends on the underlying cause. Analyze your child’s cough to determine the type and the reason behind it. Visit a doctor if you’re unsure, or if your child has any worrisome symptoms (more on this below). Then test out the following home remedies to ease your child’s coughing.  

It’s important to note, though, that you should never give cough suppressant or cough syrups to young children, whether they have a wet cough or a dry cough. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says they could have dangerous consequences to children younger than 4 years old. What’s more, there’s no evidence this medicine is effective for those under 6. 

Home Remedies for a Wet Cough

Wet coughs may last for days or weeks—however long you’re fighting the virus. It’s also possible that your wet cough will turn into a dry cough as you get better. In the meantime, how to ease the coughing. 

  • Wet coughs in babies can create discomfort, since little ones can’t blow their noses. Parents can help clear the mucus with a bulb syringe and saline nasal drops.
  • Lift your child’s bed or add an extra pillow. Sleeping with elevation decreases postnasal drip, which helps with coughing and throat irritation.
  • Place a humidifier in your child’s room. The moisture keeps the throat moist and loosens phlegm, making it easier to get rid of. You can achieve the same results by taking a steamy shower (you can also sit in a steamy bathroom with a young child.)
  • Stay hydrated to prevent dryness in the throat. Very cold liquids and hot liquids (like chicken noodle soup or decaffeinated tea) are best for thinning out mucus.

Home Remedies for a Dry Cough

Dry coughs tend to stick around longer than wet ones. If it's caused by a chronic condition like gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or asthma, they might turn into a persistent cough that never goes away. Here’s how to help.

  • Set up a humidifier in your child’s room, or encourage her to take a steamy shower. The added moisture can ease chest discomfort that can lead to dry cough.
  • Cough drops or throat lozenges contain throat-soothing ingredients like honey and menthol and honey. They’re an effective dry cough treatment for children old enough to suck on them without swallowing.
  • If your kid is older than 1, consider serving honey, which coats the throat to relieve cough-causing irritation.
  • Similarly, your child can ease irritation by gargling salt water. A good ratio is one-half teaspoon of salt and 8 ounces of water. Just make sure your child doesn’t swallow it!
  • Avoid physical activity, which could exacerbate a dry cough.

When to See a Doctor

Most coughs don’t indicate serious illness, and they often go away on their own. However, you should visit your child’s doctor if he’s under 4 months old, or if he has the following symptoms.

  • A cough that lasts longer than 2-3 weeks, which could indicate GERD, asthma, or another chronic condition that needs treatment
  • A cough that’s getting progressively worse
  • A cough that produces blood, green mucus, or foul-smelling phlegm
  • High fever (or any fever in babies)
  • Making “whooping” or wheezing sounds
  • Irritability and extreme fatigue 

Call 9-1-1 immediately in these cases.

  • Bluish or pale skin
  • Difficulty breathing, rapid breathing, or shortness of breath
  • Signs of dehydration
  • A sucking or retracting motion in the stomach
  • Choking or vomiting with coughing

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