dry cough

Dry Cough 101: Causes, Medicine, Remedies, & Treatment

Learn about dry cough and its causes, as well as the treatment, medicine and home remedies available to stop dry cough.

by Liam Hoo

Coughing can be an annoying experience that leaves many of us feeling quite literally, breathless and frustrated. It is, however, one of our body’s defensive responses that help protect our body from invaders. When we cough, the forceful expulsion of air from our lungs gets rid of foreign substances and secretions in the lungs or respiratory tract. This helps to reduce irritation and prevent infection. 

Of course, most times when we cough, we expect phlegm to be expelled, but what happens when nothing is expelled? 

What Is a Dry Cough?

A dry cough, or non-productive cough happens when a cough does not result in any mucus or phlegm being expelled. It can often be accompanied by a scratchy or painful throat. 

Persistent Dry Cough

On its own, an occasional dry cough is nothing to be worried about and is generally not a cause for concern at all if it resolves on its own. Dry coughs, however, can become persistent when it lasts for more than 8 weeks in adults and 4 weeks in children. Such chronic dry coughs could be a cause for concern, especially if they occur alongside other symptoms. Together, they may be indicators of other underlying conditions in your body. 

Causes of Dry Cough

There can be a variety of causes for dry cough, some of which are common and others which might be relatively more serious. 

Non-Serious and or Common  Causes of Dry Cough

Some common and non-serious causes of dry cough that shouldn’t stress you out too much include: 

Asthma

Asthma is a condition in which your airways swell and become narrowed. While asthma-related coughs can also produce phlegm or mucus, they are typically more often than not, dry coughs. You should take note that coughing is usually not the most prominent asthma symptom although there is a cough variant asthma (CVA) that has a chronic dry cough as its primary symptom. If you suspect that your dry cough is a symptom of asthma, you should consult a doctor as soon as possible to ascertain. 

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) refers to when you experience frequent episodes of acid reflux. It occurs when stomach acid flows back upwards into your esophagus, the tube that connects your mouth to your stomach. The stomach acid irritates your esophagus and can sometimes trigger your cough reflex as a result. GERD can typically be controlled with simple over the counter medication or prescription medication depending on its severity. Consult a doctor for further advice and to check if GERD is indeed the cause of your dry cough. 

Postnasal Drip

Postnasal drip refers to extra mucus dripping down your throat. During a bout of flu or when we have seasonal allergies, the membranes in our noses respond by producing more mucus than usual. Unlike normal or healthy mucus, this mucus is watery and runny, dripping easily down the back of our throats. When this happens, the postnasal drip can tickle the back of our throats and trigger our cough reflex, causing dry coughs. Usually the result of allergies, bacterial or viral infections, postnasal drip is easily remedied with simple steps that you can take to clear your sinuses such as taking a hot shower with steam or using a saline nasal spray.

Viral Infection

It’s quite normal for a cough to linger long after a bout of the common cold brought on by a viral infection. Such post-cold coughs are typically dry coughs and may last for up to two months. After a viral infection, your airway is often overly-sensitive as it continues to recover and is easily irritated, causing the dry coughs. While such dry coughs may take a while to resolve on their own and can cause some annoyance, they shouldn’t lead to further serious medical complications. 

Environmental Irritants

Sometimes our airways are just irritated by particles in the air, including smoke, pollution, dust, mold, and pollen. Chemical irritants in the environment such as sulfur dioxide or nitric oxide, can also trigger dry coughs. Sometimes even clean air that’s too dry or too cold can also result in dry coughs for some of us. Pay attention to your environment and avoid these irritants if you can. 

Drug-Induced Dry Cough

Certain prescription drugs like ACE inhibitors, such Vasotec, Prinivil, and Zestril that are used to treat a range of medical conditions including high blood pressure can cause chronic dry coughs as a side effect. Most often, the only way to resolve the issue is to stop taking the medication. If you are on ACE inhibitors and are experiencing chronic dry cough, you should speak to your doctor about finding suitable alternatives for treating your condition.

Whooping Cough

Pertussis, or colloquially known as whooping cough, is a highly contagious disease that causes a severe dry cough. Breathing in after you cough, makes the eponymous  ‘whoop’ sound. While easily mistaken for a common cold in its early onset, it eventually descends into uncontrollable coughing fits. While that may sound scary, whooping cough has been largely eradicated as a childhood disease and is now rarely contracted thanks to the development of the whooping cough vaccine. 

Serious Causes of Dry Cough

Collapsed Lung

Known as pneumothorax, a collapsed lung happens when air is introduced into your chest cavity, putting pressure against your lung and causing it to deflate. It may happen spontaneously, or due to chest trauma. The condition is more likely to happen if you have an underlying lung disease. The dry cough is often accompanied by sudden chest pain and shortness of breath. This requires immediate medical attention and medical treatment should be sought immediately if you suspect you have a collapsed lung. 

Lung Cancer

Although unlikely, a dry cough might be a possible sign of lung cancer. You should only worry, however, if your dry cough is persistent, or changes over time to become more painful or sound different. Lung cancer is also accompanied by other symptoms like coughing up blood, chest pain, or unexplained weight loss. If your dry cough is happening alongside such other symptoms, it is best to consult a doctor immediately, especially if you have risk factors for lung cancer like smoking or a family history of lung cancer. 

Heart Failure

Heart failure is common in those of us with other heart conditions like coronary artery disease and high blood pressure. It happens when your heart is unable to pump blood as effectively and as before. One symptom that can arise is a persistent, dry cough, although it can also cause a cough that produces foamy white or pink-tinged mucus. If you experience other symptoms of heart failure alongside your dry cough like rapid or irregular heartbeat, fluid retention, and sudden or severe shortness of breath, you should consult a doctor immediately.

Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis

Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF) refers to when your lungs develop scar tissue within them. Inhaling air becomes increasingly difficult as the scar tissue thickens over time. A persistent dry cough is one of the most common symptoms of IPF and you should consult a doctor if you exhibit other symptoms of IPF such as clubbing of your finger and toes, or loss of body mass and appetite.

COVID-19

Unfortunately, dry cough is also one of the most common symptoms of COVID-19, the coronavirus disease that has gripped the world in a global pandemic since 2019. If you’re experiencing fever, or fatigue alongside your dry cough, or other respiratory tract disease symptoms, you must immediately consult a doctor and seek medical advice to guard against Covid-19. 

If you suspect that your dry cough is due to a serious cause, you should seek medical attention as soon as possible. Consider consulting a doctor online for safety especially in these pandemic times. For your added convenience, Homage also offers house call doctor services so that you can the care you need in the comfort of your own home.

Every individual is different, and your loved one has care needs that are unique. Engaging a caregiver for your loved one not only encourages interaction; it also helps build a strong emotional support for your loved one.

To give your loved one the best care he/she deserves, we provide a free care consultation for you and your loved one, to ensure that they get a Care Professional that best suits their needs.

Dry Cough Diagnosis

As with most standard medical evaluations, your doctor will proceed by asking about your symptoms and medical history, before proceeding with a physical examination to diagnose the cause of your dry cough. 

Sometimes in order to fully diagnose the root cause of your dry cough, however, your doctor may recommend the following tests: 

Imaging Tests

Having an X-ray or CT scan allows your doctor to see the inside of your chest and look for any underlying problems that might be causing your dry cough. 

Spirometry

This is a common test used to assess your lung function by measuring how much air you exhale and inhale, and how quickly you exhale. It’s a rather simple test that only requires you to breathe into a plastic device.

Bronchoscopy

A bronchoscopy involves having a thin flexible tube with a camera attached inserted through your mouth leading towards your lungs. This way, your doctor can check for abnormalities in your windpipe and airways and find out what’s causing your dry cough.

Home Remedies for Dry Cough

For the most part, however, dry cough is usually just a minor ailment that’s part and parcel of everyday living and can be remedied with home remedies.

Here are some suggestions for you to get relief for your dry cough: 

Menthol Cough Drops

Menthol cough drops contain active compounds from mint and are able to provide a powerful cooling effect that helps to soothe your irritated airway and relax your cough reflex. Available over the counter, you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding it at any pharmacy and or convenience store. 

Humidifier

Dry air can aggravate inflammation in your throat tissue and trigger or worsen your dry cough. You can consider getting a humidifier to help alleviate your dry cough and sleep better at night with extra comfort.

Hot Beverages

Warm fluids such as soup, broth, or tea provide moisture and immediate relief for sore and scratchy throats, lessening irritation and reducing dry coughs. The hydration also helps your airway to heal while it recovers from any inflammation.

Honey

Honey is famed as a health food with strong anti-inflammatory properties. Taking honey can help lessen the irritation to your airway. It also helps to break down mucus and soothes your throat, providing relief to your dry cough. You can try adding honey to warm tea or warm water with lemon.

Gargle Salt Water

Salt water helps to soothe  inflammation in your tissues and aids with healing. You can try mixing half a teaspoon of salt with a cup of water to sip. Gargle for around 30 second afterwards and remember not to swallow the salt water.

Herbs

There are many herbs with anti-inflammatory properties that can help reduce swelling and provide relief for your dry cough. Some of them suitable for remedying dry cough include thyme, peppermint, marshmallow root and licorice root. Try supplementing your diet with these herbs by making teas with them or adding them to your daily cooking to spice things up. 

Hydration

It may be common sense but staying hydrated and drinking enough fluids helps your throat remain moist and heal properly without further irritation triggering dry coughs. Drink around 7 glasses of water a day, or just make sure that you don’t feel thirsty or that your mouth and throat are dry.

Bromelain

Bromelain is a powerful anti-inflammatory enzyme that’s found in pineapples.  It can help relieve and soothe an irritated throat and also break down mucus, alleviating your dry cough. It’s possible to consume bromelain by eating pineapples or drinking pineapple juice, though supplements may be preferable if you are looking for a higher concentration of bromelain. 

Dry Cough Medicine

If home remedies aren’t working out for you, you might want to consider taking over-the-counter medications like  decongestants or cough suppressants. 

Decongestants

When we endure a viral infection such as the common cold, the lining of our noses swell up and the passage of air in our noses is blocked. Decongestants work by narrowing the blood vessels in our nose and reducing blood flow to the swollen tissues in our nose. They may help reduce postnasal drip, and relieve your dry cough.

Cough Suppressants

Also known as antitussives, cough suppressants are drugs that quiet your cough by blocking your cough reflex. This can help provide relief if you are experiencing painful dry coughs or if your dry cough is causing insomnia.

Depending on the severity of your dry cough and its exact cause, your doctor may recommend other medication to target the underlying causes. There’s also a possibility that you may need to consume cough medication for a period of time in order to help resolve your dry cough. Homage now offers cough medicine delivery services to anywhere in Singapore that you can consider for a fuss-free treatment plan. 

When to See a Doctor for Dry Cough?

A persistent dry cough is typically not a cause for concern. That does not, however, mean that we should let our guard down. You should see a doctor for your dry cough if it’s accompanied by other symptoms, especially those that are urgent such as chest pain, fever, or difficulty breathing. You should also see a doctor if your dry cough is abnormally long-lasting— over two months and above, or seems to worsen in pain or severity over time. 

In any case, if you’re uncertain about your dry cough and would like tailored medical support and advice, our Homage Care Advisors and Care Specialists are always available to help you at 6100 0055.

Also, are you looking for someone to care for your loved ones?

Homage provides caregiving services for your loved ones at every stage. Our trained care professionals are able to provide companionship, nursing care, night caregiving, home therapy and more, to keep your loved ones active and engaged. 

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References
  1. Glashan, E., & Mahmoud, S. H. (2018). Cough. Patient Assessment in Clinical Pharmacy: A Comprehensive Guide, 67–78. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-11775-7_5
  2. Mahashur A. (2015). Chronic dry cough: Diagnostic and management approaches. Lung India : official organ of Indian Chest Society, 32(1), 44–49. https://doi.org/10.4103/0970-2113.148450
  3. Overlack A. (1996). ACE inhibitor-induced cough and bronchospasm. Incidence, mechanisms and management. Drug safety, 15(1), 72–78. https://doi.org/10.2165/00002018-199615010-00006
  4. Morice, A. H., McGarvey, L., Pavord, I., & British Thoracic Society Cough Guideline Group (2006). Recommendations for the management of cough in adults. Thorax, 61 Suppl 1(Suppl 1), i1–i24. https://doi.org/10.1136/thx.2006.065144
About the Writer
Liam Hoo
Liam is a history major who guzzles coffee a little too much for his own good. He enjoys sharing his curiosity about the world and eccentric quirks with others. In his spare time, he’s either daydreaming, writing, or daydreaming about writing.
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