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What is a Rattling Cough?

By Erin J. Hill
Updated Mar 06, 2024
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A rattling noise when breathing, often described as a chesty cough, can be a telltale sign of respiratory issues. According to the American Lung Association, such symptoms may indicate the presence of mucus in the airways, which is common in conditions like chronic bronchitis, affecting approximately 9 million Americans as of 2018. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also notes that acute respiratory infections like the common cold, which can lead to a rattling cough, account for millions of doctor visits annually. While less frequent, pertussis or whooping cough, despite vaccination efforts, still poses a risk, with 15,737 cases reported in the United States in 2018. Understanding the underlying causes of this symptom is crucial for effective treatment and management.

In many cases, a rattling cough is nothing to worry about. The common cold often causes congestion in the throat or chest which can result in wheezing or rustling in the chest. Influenza is another common cause of rattling cough symptoms. It is not life threatening for most sufferers, although some members of the population are at risk of serious complications. The elderly, pregnant women, children under two years of age, and those with compromised immune systems are most vulnerable. Very rarely, complications may arise in vulnerable persons.

Occasionally, a rattling cough can signal a serious health condition. Pneumonia, an infection of the lungs, is a condition which often occurs as the result of a less threatening illness which fails to heal, such as influenza. Large amounts of mucus may form and block airways. Breathing becomes labored and medical intervention is generally needed.

There are both “wet” and “dry” forms of rattling cough. “Wet” coughs are usually accompanied by mucus, which comes up through the throat and into the mouth during coughing spells. “Dry” coughs do not produce mucus, but the rattling sounds are still present deep inside the chest. This may require medication to loosen the mucus so that it can be effectively expelled.

Treatment for rattling cough will depend on the underlying cause. Viruses can only be destroyed by the body's immune system, but medication may be beneficial for alleviating symptoms. Bacterial infections can often be treated with antibiotics. Breathing can be aided in severe cases using oxygen or ventilators.

A rattling cough should always be checked out by a doctor, especially when it occurs in the elderly or in very young children. Influenza, pertussis, and pneumonia are potentially life threatening for infants and immediate medical care is needed to prevent complications. Parents or family members should take their loved ones to the doctor if coughing lasts more than a week without any signs of improvement, the person seems to have trouble breathing, or if the person stops eating.

FAQ on Rattling Cough

What causes a rattling cough?

A rattling cough, often described as a 'chesty cough,' is usually caused by mucus or phlegm in the airways. It can be a symptom of various respiratory conditions, such as bronchitis, pneumonia, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Infections, allergies, and irritants like smoke can also lead to the production of excess mucus, resulting in a rattling sound when coughing.

How can I tell if my rattling cough is serious?

If your rattling cough is accompanied by symptoms like high fever, shortness of breath, chest pain, or if it persists for more than a few weeks, it may be serious. According to the American Lung Association, a chronic cough lasting eight weeks or longer is considered chronic and warrants medical attention. Additionally, if you cough up blood or experience significant weight loss, seek medical advice promptly.

Are there any home remedies for a rattling cough?

Home remedies for a rattling cough include staying hydrated to help thin mucus, using a humidifier to moisten the air, and inhaling steam. Honey, particularly in tea or warm water, can soothe the throat and has antimicrobial properties. However, it's important to note that while these remedies may provide relief, they do not replace medical treatment if the underlying cause is a bacterial infection or other serious condition.

When should I see a doctor for a rattling cough?

You should see a doctor for a rattling cough if it is severe, lasts more than three weeks, or is getting progressively worse. Other red flags include experiencing difficulty breathing, wheezing, fever above 101°F, or producing discolored or bloody mucus. Early medical intervention can be crucial, especially if the cough is a symptom of a more serious underlying condition.

Can a rattling cough be prevented?

Preventing a rattling cough involves reducing exposure to factors that can irritate the lungs or lead to infections. This includes quitting smoking, avoiding secondhand smoke, and staying up to date with vaccinations like the flu shot and pneumococcal vaccine. Good hygiene practices, such as frequent handwashing, can also help prevent respiratory infections that may cause a rattling cough.

TheHealthBoard is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By anon336936 — On Jun 01, 2013

I have a rattling cough that hasn't gone away for a week and a half. I also have a runny nose and am getting close to a hundred-degree fever. Should I check with a doctor? I am using advil already, two a day, and mucus relief every day since my symptoms started.

By ZsaZsa56 — On Jun 08, 2011

I have an uncle that suffers from a persistent dry rattling cough. He says that this is caused by an allergic reaction to something that is common during the spring in the Midwest. This became such an issue for him that he moved to San Diego when he was a young man. He claims to have no trouble with it when he is in California, but every time he comes to visit my family in Missouri he coughs steadily and uncomfortably once ever 10 seconds. I can see why he moved.

By summing — On Jun 07, 2011

When I was a little kid my grandmother had a really terrible sounding rattling cough from influenza caused by a lifetime of smoking. She was a very sweet old lady that baked cookies and read stories and generally spoiled myself and my brother to death, but for some reason I always think of that cough when I think of her. It really sounded terrible and unfortunately it ended up killing her. She died of respiratory failure.

By Fredo — On Jun 07, 2011

I suffered from a deep rattling cough in my chest while in the hospital with bacterial pneumonia. When the sputum wouldn't come up from the lungs, they had their own solution for getting it up:

A physical therapist would come in and pound on my back where the lungs would be situated to loosen the sputum from inside the lungs so I could cough it up into a measuring-cup type tube. The sputum had to reach a certain level before I could be discharged!

By popcorn — On Jun 07, 2011

If you are fairly certain that it is a cold causing your rattling cough it is a good idea to head to the pharmacy and ask for some medicine that will relieve your symptoms. While pharmacists aren't doctors they can recommend good over the counter medications and let you know if they will interact with anything you are already taking.

Also, pharmacists are usually very alert and will often tell you if they think you should seek additional attention. One told me that my cough was not a cold and sent me packing upstairs to see my doctor. Apparently there are some rattling coughs that sound noticeably different depending on the severity of the problem.

By lonelygod — On Jun 07, 2011

If you are at home and feeling ill a rattling cough can be painful and make it difficult to function at your best. If you aren't able to see a doctor right away there are some things you can do to clear up your airways and make it more comfortable to breathe.

A good tip is to take a hot steamy shower. The steam can help break up trapped mucus which can make you feel a lot better. A warm compress on your chest, such as a heated towel or water bottle can also improve your condition.

If you are willing, there are various rubs available for sale at pharmacies that offer relief from a terrible cough when put on the chest.

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