Coughing can be a sign of many things, and because of COVID, we all may flinch a little when someone coughs. However, not all coughs equate to serious illness, so how do we tell them apart?

Clearing Your Throat

Although it may not seem like coughing, clearing your throat is still considered a cough. Just because someone clears their throat doesn’t mean they’re sick, however, since coughing is a natural reflex to help clear irritants and blockages from the airway. The occasional cough on its own is a sign of this and is mostly harmless. When coughing persists for weeks or when someone coughs up discolored mucus or blood, then there is cause for concern.

A Dry Cough

Dry coughs are often signs of an upper respiratory infection like the cold or flu. However, someone may have a dry cough during allergy season, if they have asthma, or if they’re exposed to an irritant, like dust or smoke. To tell if a dry cough is a symptom of something worse, check for accompanying symptoms, especially a fever.

A Wet Cough

“Wet” coughs are ones that bring up mucus and are common symptoms among the flu, the common cold, pneumonia, and bronchitis. Typically, finding illness through a wet cough is a bit easier than a dry one, since you can check the color of the mucus coughed up. If it’s a yellow color, speak with a doctor.

Coughing Fits

When someone enters a coughing fit, pay attention to the sound the cough makes: if someone’s cough sounds like a barking seal, chances are their upper airways are inflamed. If someone makes a “whoop” sound or gasps for air in between coughs, it could be a sign of pneumonia, a severe asthma attack, COPD, or whooping cough. Both these kinds of coughs warrant a visit to the doctor.


The difficulty with identifying a COVID-19 cough from other coughs is that it’s so similar to most other kinds of coughing. Typically, the cough associated with Coronavirus is dry, but some people may experience a wet cough later on. It is best to identify COVID-19 via a combination of symptoms—most people with COVID experience a dry cough, a fever, and shortness of breath or chest pain.

When Should I See a Doctor?

You know your body best, but if a cough persists for several weeks, you begin to cough up blood or discolored mucus, have trouble breathing, experience chest pain, or a cough interferes with your sleep, contact a doctor.


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