Is Coughing A Symptom Of COVID-19?

When you develop a cough, it's easy to worry that you might have caught COVID-19. But is coughing really a symptom, or could it be something else altogether?

Coughing is a symptom of many different things, from allergies to flu to yes, COVID-19. Health Digest spoke with Dr. Sri Banerjee, core faculty in Walden University's PhD in Public Health program, and an epidemiologist with 20 years of experience, to learn how to differentiate types of cough. According to Dr. Banerjee, the World Health Organization found that in a study of 56,000 patients, 68 percent had a dry cough with COVID-19. That makes it one of the highest-frequency symptoms, along with fever and shortness of breath.

There are different types of cough. "Coughs can be either wet, also known as productive, or dry, also known as non-productive. Productivity refers to the amount of phlegm present during the cough. While a dry cough is a common symptom of COVID-19, this symptom alone does not necessarily indicate infection with the virus. Doctors see a dry cough in individuals who have asthma, acid reflux, and even worsening heart failure," Dr. Banerjee said.

What type is your cough?

Dry and wet coughs sound very different. A dry cough is marked by "a tickle in the back of the throat and produces a barking or hoarse sound. The barking sound occurs because the airway is not constantly changing with the cough," Dr. Banerjee explained. While dry coughs don't usually hurt, they can be unsatisfying because they do not clear the throat and lungs.

There are several conditions that can bring on dry or wet coughs: the common cold, flu, COVID-19, and seasonal allergies are the most common. The sound of the cough can be an alert for doctors. "While the sound and type of cough may vary between people, there may be ways to distinguish similar conditions through the type of cough. For instance, generally, if a person has a dry cough, this indicates that the person may either have COVID-19 or influenza rather than the common cold or seasonal allergies," Dr. Banerjee explained.

He emphasized that doctors do have to use caution when relying on a cough for diagnoses, however. "In some cases, an individual with COVID-19 can exhibit a productive cough as a symptom as well. The most definitive way to determine if a person has COVID-19 is by taking the diagnostic test," Dr. Banerjee said.