Chesty cough

The most common cause of chesty coughs is infection by common cold or flu viruses.


Chesty coughs are coughs triggered by an excessive amount of mucus in the chest. For this reason, they are sometimes also referred to as mucus coughs. Doctors refer to chesty coughs as ‘productive coughs’ as the act of coughing produces (or brings up) mucus from the chest.

This page provides information on chesty coughs resulting from viral infections such as the cold or flu. Follow the link for information on dry, tickly coughs.

Causes of chesty coughs

Air enters the body via the lungs. It moves firstly through the large and medium sized tubes known as the bronchi and bronchioles. These tubes are lined by tissue known as the mucus membranes, so-called because they produce mucus which covers the surfaces of the tubes.

This mucus covering has a purpose – it traps unwanted particles such as dust, bacteria and viruses which enter the lungs, moving these upwards towards the back of the throat where, without thinking about it, mucus is swallowed and then destroyed by the stomach acids.

When cold or flu viruses enter the respiratory system, these membranes increase the production of mucus in an attempt to fight off the infection. This extra amount of mucus cannot be removed using the normal mechanism and a cough reflex is triggered to enable the lungs to remove the abnormal amount of mucus or phlegm.

What should I look out for?

Chesty coughs can also be caused by other conditions apart from cold or flu infections. Seek medical advice if you:

  • Cough up blood
  • Cough up foul smelling mucus
  • Have a cough which does not improve within 7 days
  • Suffer from a persistent, unexplained cough (longer than 8 weeks)
  • Feel short of breath
  • Notice a fever

Treating a chesty cough

Treatment of a chesty cough aims to thin the mucus in the chest, making it easier for the body to bring it up when coughing. There are a number of ways of doing this:

  • Expectorants are medicines which help thin the mucus. They are usually made from ipecachuana, guaifenesin or ammonium citrate
  • Many herbs have a long history of use in chesty coughs. Those with a long history of use are licensed or registered as traditional remedies include ivy and thyme.

Self-help for chesty coughs

If you suffer from a chesty cough, you can help the cough resolve faster:

  • Inhalation of menthol based preparations – this helps to clear up catarrh
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Take sufficient rest. Many people try to fight the infection by soldiering on, but this only decreases the immune system’s ability to repel the bugs
  • If you smoke, take this chance to give up cigarettes for good

Further reading:
Dry, tickly cough

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