A cough is a lovely little reflex that typically clears your throat and lungs of mucus and irritants. But if your cough feels drier than the Sahara and there’s no mucus to be found, you’re probs dealing with a dry cough.
So, what’s a dry cough?
A dry cough doesn’t produce any phlegm or mucus and often causes a tickling sensation in your throat.
It’s also known as an “unproductive” cough because its doesn’t expel anything from your throat or lungs (unlike wet, “productive” coughs).
Different forms of irritation, including allergies, asthma, and viral infections (even COVID-19 🦠) could be to blame.
While an occasional dry cough is usually nothing to worry about, chronic coughing may be a symptom of a more serious condition.
Here’s how to figure out what dry cough sitch you’re in, and how to treat it.
Asthma is a lung condition that causes inflammation and narrowing of your airways, making it difficult to breath. This can sometimes lead to a whole lotta coughing (including dry coughing), especially for those with cough variant asthma (CVA).
Asthma symptoms include:
- shortness of breath
- chest pain or tightness
- wheezing or coughing
- whistling sound when breathing out
There isn’t a cure for asthma, so most treatments are focused on relieving symptoms. Bronchodilator inhalers, like albuterol, are often used to help ease those occasional asthma attacks.
For long-term treatment, a doc may prescribe an inhaled corticosteroid, like:
- mometasone (Asmanex)
- fluticasone (Flovent)
- budesonide (Pulmicort)
Ah, COVID-19. Whether you or those in your circle have had it or not, this respiratory condition caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus has been top-of-mind for all of us.
A common symptom of COVID-19 is a dry cough. Other symptoms includes:
- sore throat
- sinus congestion
- body aches
- chest pain
- difficulty breathing
There is currently no cure for COVID-19, but your healthcare professional can help you pinpoint a treatment and recovery plan.
Getting plenty of rest is important if you have COVID-19, as well as distancing yourself from others to avoid transmitting the virus (we’re all quarantine champs by now!).
If your symptoms become severe, call your healthcare professional ASAP. The good news? Vaccines to prevent the virus are being rolled out as we speak.
You know the mucus that drips down the back of your throat whenever allergies, colds, or sinus infections hit? That’s postnasal drip.
This runny, watery mucus makes you cough by irritating those ticklish little nerves in the back of your throat. While these coughs are often nice and productive, postnasal drip does sometimes cause a dry cough.
Symptoms of postnasal drip include:
- sore throat
- issues swallowing
- runny nose
- nighttime coughing
- feeling like there’s a lump in your throat
Postnasal drip treatment
Postnasal drip is often caused by a virus, a bacterial infection, or allergies. Treatments can vary based on the exact cause, but often options include decongestants, nasal sprays, or good ol’ fashioned steam from a hot shower.
Colds and viral infections
Being struck down with a viral infection — like the common cold or the flu — is never fun. These types of upper respiratory issues can cause a whole slew of symptoms, including dry cough.
Depending on what exactly ails you, other symptoms can include:
- achy muscles
- runny nose
- sore throat
Kick that cold
The best remedy for any respiratory illness is staying rested and hydrated. You can also opt for over-the-counter (OTC) meds. If symptoms worsen, call your doctor about a prescription medication.
Because a viral infection can leave your airways sensitive, a cough can outlast a cold by days, weeks, and even months. Sometimes all you can do is patiently wait it out.
You can ease a post-cold cough by sipping on warm drinks (tea time!) or using throat lozenges.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (aka GERD) is a chronic condition where acid from your stomach finds its way back up your esophagus (what up, acid reflux?).
This acid can lead to irritation, which in turn leads to dry coughing. In fact, according to one research review, chronic dry cough affects around 40 percent of peeps with GERD.
GERD is usually accompanied by other gastrointestinal symptoms, including:
- nausea or vomiting
- chest pain
- chronic cough
- chronic sore throat
- trouble swallowing
- bad breath
- that “lump in the back of the throat” feeling
Often a mix of healthy lifestyle changes, like eating a balanced diet, and acid-reducing meds (both OTC or prescription) can help manage GERD symptoms.
Dry cough can sometimes be a side effect of prescription meds called ACE inhibitors. These are used to treat other conditions, like high blood pressure. Common ACE inhibitors include enalapril (Vasotec) and lisinopril (Zestril, Prinivil).
According to Harvard Health Publishing, about 20 percent of folks using ACE inhibitors experience dry coughs from their meds.
So, what can you do about it?
In these cases, the only way to stop dry coughs from occurring is to stop using your ACE inhibitor. Always consult your doc before stopping an ACE inhibitor.
If stopping an ACE inhibitor isn’t the right option for you, you can take steps to ease coughing, like drinking hot bevvies, sucking on lozenges, or taking a hot n’ steamy shower.
Allergies and environmental causes
Dust and pollen and mold, oh my!
Allergens and environmental irritants have been known to trigger a dry cough, thanks to their ability to anger your airways.
Other symptoms can vary and may include watery eyes, runny nose, or congestion — depending what triggers your reaction.
Other common airborne irritants include:
- pet dander
- chemical particles (like sulfur dioxide and nitric oxide)
OTC or prescription meds can often help you out, as well as using natural remedies. Keeping your home free of allergy-inducers and avoiding triggers can also help.
Clean, crisp air can also be a cough-y culprit — if it’s dry enough. You can help add moisture back in your life by using a humidifier.
Whooping cough (aka pertussis) is a super contagious condition that causes a severe dry cough followed by a “whoop-ing” sound as you inhale. As it progresses, whooping cough can lead to uncontrollable (and uncomfortable) coughing fits.
While pertussis is less common these days thanks to vaccines, it can still affect children who haven’t been vaccinated. It can also impact adults and teenagers if their immunity has decreased since vaccination.
Whooping cough treatment
If you suspect you have whooping cough, you’ll need to call the doctor and get antibiotics.
Pneumothorax (aka a collapsed lung) is the result of your lung suddenly deflating. While this is most common in people with an underlying lung condition, a collapsed lung can be triggered by a chest injury or it can happen on its own.
A collapsed lung can cause dry coughing, shortness of breath, or sudden chest pain, and requires medical attention ASAP!
Though it’s an unlikely culprit, a consistent, long-term dry cough can be a symptom of lung cancer. This type of cough often won’t go away, and it’s sound and severity may even change with time.
Other symptoms of lung cancer include:
- coughing up blood (or bloody phlegm)
- chest pain
- shortness of breath
- weight loss
- feeling weak or fatigued
Lung cancer treatment
The earlier a diagnosis is made, the better. Talk with your doctor right away if you experience any of the above symptoms with your dry cough. They can help you determine a treatment plan based on the stage and type of lung cancer, which can include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or surgery.
If your heart doesn’t effectively pump blood the way it should, you may be experiencing heart failure. Heart failure is more common in folks who have high blood pressure or coronary artery disease, but it can affect anyone.
Heart failure can cause a dry cough or a cough that’s accompanied by foamy white or pink-ish mucus.
Other symptoms can include:
- sudden or severe shortness of breath
- irregular heart rate
- weakness or fatigue
- abdominal swelling, or swelling in your legs, ankles, or feet
- fluid retention
- loss of appetite
- problems concentrating
Seek medical attention ASAP if you experience symptoms of heart failure!
There are plenty of ways to send that dry cough packing, both at home or with a doctor’s help.
When you have a cold or other virus, the tissue in your nose can swell up and make breathing difficult (thanks, congestion!). Decongestants work by reducing the blood flow to these swollen tissues, so you can breathe easier.
It’s important to note that while these OTC meds are great for adults, they shouldn’t be given to kids under 12 years old. Look for meds specifically for kids or talk with your kiddo’s doc if they’re experiencing congestion.
If you have high blood pressure, you should also consult your doc before taking decongestants. Some decongestants can actually raise blood pressure.
When cruising the drugstore aisles for cough meds, choose one that’s a cough suppressant, rather than a cough expectorant.
Cough suppressants are ideal for dry coughs because they block your cough reflex. This can help you get through your day (or night 💤) when a persistent cough has got you down.
Just note that cough meds shouldn’t be used to treat a dry cough caused by asthma.
Menthol cough drops or rubs
Sucking on a menthol cough drop or lathering on a chest rub can help ease dry coughing when you have a cold. Menthol cough drops can also help relax the cough reflex and soothe an irritated or inflamed throat tissue.
Dry air can irritate an already angry throat, which can lead to dry coughs.
Investing in a humidifier can help. By adding moisture back into the air, these machines help ease your dry throat to help prevent coughing. This is especially helpful at night when you’re trying to get some quality Zzz’s.
Time to make shower time hot and steamy.
Before your mind heads into the gutter, hear us out. A hot shower is great for many things, including to help calm irritation and dryness in your throat.
Elevate your bed
Snoozing with your upper body in an elevated position can help ease postnasal drip and GERD.
You can elevate yourself by simply using extra pillows. For a more long-term solution (and investment!), you can also choose an adjustable bed.
Teas, broths, warm lemon water… there are many hot drinks to consider when you’ve got a case of dry cough.
The wet warmth from sipping on a hot bevvie can give your sore, scratchy throat sweet relief, while also providing you with hydrating goodness (win-win!).
Avoid irritants and allergens
Common irritants like scented products, smoke, pollen, and dander can invade your respiratory system and cause you to cough.
By staying away from allergens and irritants, you can help prevent dry coughs from happening to begin with.
You’ve likely heard the buzz about honey, and for good reason. Honey is packed with anti-inflammatory properties that can help soothe your throat and lessen inflammation.
Just don’t give honey to any coughing bébés under 1. Honey contains bacteria that can cause infant botulism and make the 12-month and under crew super sick.
Hot tip: Add a bit of honey to your tea or hot lemon water.
Salt water gargle
Gargling salt water can soothe inflamed tissue and help support the healing process, which is especially useful when it comes to a sore or dry throat.
To do a salt water gargle, simply mix 1/2 teaspoon of salt into 8 ounces of warm water, take a drink, tilt your head back, and gargle away. Continue to gently gargle for about 30 seconds, then spit.
And remember: Do NOT swallow salt water — always spit it out!
Say it with us: Fluids are our friends.
It’s important to stay hydrated all the time, but when your throat is ailing you, hydration is even more critical. Getting enough water in your diet helps keep your throat moist (yeah, we’re cringing at the word, too), which helps it heal.
An enzyme found in pineapples, bromelain is an anti-inflammatory that can help soothe swollen or irritated throat tissue.
Sipping on some delish pineapple juice can help you add some bromelain to your diet. For a more concentrated option, you can try a bromelain supplement.
If you’re taking any meds, make sure to double-check with your doc before going ham on the bromelain. It can actually interact with some medications.
If your dry cough refuses to let up, gets worse, or you notice blood or green mucus when you cough, it’s time to talk with your doc.
You should also visit your healthcare professional if you experience other symptoms, like:
- trouble breathing or shortness of breath
- issues swallowing
- chest pain
- feeling like something’s stuck in your throat
Dry coughs are known as unproductive coughs, meaning that they don’t produce any phlegm or mucus. While they’re often not cause for concern, they can be a symptom of a more serious underlying condition.
There are many possible causes of a dry cough, ranging from reactions to environmental irritants to serious medical conditions.
You can try different OTC or home remedies to get rid of an annoying dry cough. But if your cough is persistent or is accompanied by other symptoms, chat with your doc.