Chesty coughs are triggered by an excessive amount of mucus in the chest. For this reason, they are sometimes referred to as mucus coughs.
Doctors classify chesty coughs as ‘productive coughs’ as the act of coughing produces (or brings up) mucus from the chest. This is distinct from dry coughs and tickly coughs which are both ‘non-productive’ coughs resulting from irritation at the back of your throat or pharynx.
Oxygen is brought into our bloodstream via the lungs. The air we breathe moves firstly through the large and medium sized tubes known as the bronchi and bronchioles. These tubes are lined by mucous membranes, so-called because they produce a layer of mucus which covers the surfaces of the tubes.
This mucus lining has a purpose – it traps unwanted particles such as dust, bacteria and viruses entering the respiratory tract and in this way, helps protect the body.
When the common cold or flu viruses enter the respiratory system, more mucus is produced in an attempt to wash away the bugs and help fight off the infection. This increased mucus can gather in the respiratory system and a cough reflex is triggered to help remove the extra phlegm.
There are a number of health conditions where excessive mucus production is seen in the respiratory system. These include:
- Cold and flu viruses – these infections are the most common cause of chesty mucous coughs
- Other lung infections – a wide variety of other infections, ranging from pneumonia to TB (tuberculosis), can give rise to a chesty cough
- Other medical conditions – these range from chronic bronchitis and obstructive airways disease to cystic fibrosis
- Smoking – prolonged irritation of the lungs by cigarette smoke leads to a change in cell structure in the respiratory tract and the excessive production of mucus.
Your chesty cough will most probably be the result of infection by cold and flu viruses and if this is the case, it is likely you will experience other symptoms of the cold or flu such as a blocked nose or fever.
However, you may experience other symptoms associated with a chesty cough including:
- Sore throat – mucus produced when you cough can irritate the lining of your throat causing it to become painful
- Pain in the chest – this arises as the muscles become strained or ‘bruised’ because of coughing. In rare circumstances, it has also been known for ribs to be fractured during prolonged and vigorous coughing
- Muscular pain in the abdomen – coughing can also strain your abdominal muscles.
Chesty coughs can also be caused by conditions other than cold or flu infections. You should seek medical advice if you:
- Cough up blood
- Cough up foul smelling mucus
- Have a cough which does not improve within 7 days (with or without treatment)
- Suffer from a persistent, unexplained cough (longer than 3 weeks)
- Feel short of breath
- Notice a fever