Have you ever experienced a dry cough?
Coughing is the body’s natural way of protecting the airways and removing irritants. There are two types of coughs: wet and dry.
A dry cough is characterized by the absence of phlegm or mucus and a tickling sensation due to throat irritation. Doctors may refer to this as a nonproductive cough. On the other hand, a wet cough clears the airways by expelling phlegm and irritants, which is also known as a productive cough. Both types of coughs can affect children and adults.
Many conditions can cause dry coughs, but sometimes, the cause cannot be identified. In either case, a prolonged dry cough (chronic cough) can irritate the airways, causing a sore throat and other symptoms.
This remedies blog post focuses on dry coughs, exploring their symptoms and typical causes. We also provide effective medicinal and natural home remedies to improve the condition.
- Many conditions can cause a dry cough, including asthma, allergies, post-nasal drip, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), viral infections, whooping cough, smoking, and pollution.
- Treatment for dry cough depends upon the cause, but the cough itself can often be relieved with OTC cough suppressants and expectorants. Home remedies like honey, humidifier use, steam inhalation, and salt water gargle can also help.
- Seek medical advice if the dry cough continues for over 8 weeks or if symptoms also include trouble swallowing, a sensation of something stuck in the throat, wheezing, or breathing difficulties.
Common Dry Cough Causes
There are various causes of a dry cough, such as asthma, gastroesophageal reflux disease, and upper respiratory tract infection. Each condition has unique symptoms and treatments. Below are just a few of them.
Asthma is a prevalent respiratory condition that causes inflammation and constriction of the airways. It affects about 25 million Americans and is the most common chronic illness among children (1).
Coughing is a typical asthma symptom but can be productive or nonproductive. However, nonproductive coughs are more common.
Although coughing is not usually the most prominent symptom of asthma, a variation known as cough variant asthma mainly manifests as a persistent dry cough.
Other asthma symptoms include:
- Chest pain or tightness
- Shortness of breath
- Difficulty breathing
- Severe coughing or wheezing attacks
Asthma has no cure, though many children grow out of it by the time they reach adulthood. Treatment mainly involves managing symptoms and preventing future attacks.
Doctors typically prescribe the below therapies (2) for asthma:
a quick-relief inhaler that contains a bronchodilator, such as a short-acting beta-2-agonist, for addressing flare-ups
long-term medications, such as a low-dose corticosteroid inhaler, to reduce inflammation and minimize the likelihood of future attacks.
Post Nasal Drip
Postnasal drip — sometimes called postnasal drip syndrome or upper airway cough syndrome — occurs when excess mucus accumulates in and drips down the back of the throat. This can lead to coughing, which can be productive or dry depending on the amount of mucus.
Possible causes of postnasal drip include sinus infections, GERD, or nasal allergies like hay fever. It’s important to consult with a healthcare professional to determine the underlying cause to receive appropriate treatment.
Other symptoms that may indicate post nasal drip include:
- Frequent throat clearing
- Runny nose
- The sensation of something stuck in your throat
- Frequent swallowing
- Sore throat
Post Nasal Drip Treatments
The treatment for postnasal drip depend on the cause and may include:
- Nasal sprays
- Using a neti pot or other nasal irrigation system
- Antibiotics, if postnasal drip is due to a bacterial infection
- Stomach acid-neutralizing or reducing medications and/or lifestyle modifications if postnasal drip is caused by acid reflux
Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a chronic condition where stomach acid regularly flows back into the esophagus, the tube that connects the mouth and stomach.
The exact number of people affected by GERD is unknown, but experts estimate that about 20% of individuals in the United States have this digestive disorder.
GERD can irritate the esophagus and lead to coughing. GERD-related cough is often dry.
Other GERD symptoms include:
- Chest pain
- Chronically sore throat
- Minor hoarseness
- Difficulty swallowing
- The sensation of a lump in the throat
GERD can be relieved by lifestyle changes and OTC proton pump inhibitors (acid reducers) like Prilosec and Prevacid. Home remedies may also help. See the section on natural treatments below.
Upper Respiratory Infections
An acute upper respiratory infection (URI) is a viral or bacterial infection that affects the nose, throat, and structures of the throat, such as the larynx and bronchi. The common cold is an example of an upper respiratory infection.
Other URIs include:
Symptoms of upper respiratory infections include:
- Runny nose
- Stuffy nose (nasal congestion)
- Muscle aches
The dry cough of a URI is typically treated with expectorants to make the cough more productive and cough suppressants.
Pertussis, commonly known as whooping cough, is a highly contagious illness that results in severe dry coughing. When taking a breath, an affected person produces a high-pitched sound resembling a “whoop.”
Initially, it may be mistaken for a regular cold, but it eventually leads to uncontrollable coughing fits.
While whooping cough was once a prevalent childhood disease, most children are now immunized against it. It is more common in individuals who have not completed their vaccinations, particularly young children, or in those whose immunity has decreased over time, such as teenagers and adults.
Besides a dry cough, other symptoms of whooping cough include:
- Runny nose
- Reddened, watery eyes
- Significant fatigue
Other Causes of Dry Cough
Other causes of a dry cough include:
- Certain medications, such as ACE inhibitors for high blood pressure
- Cigarette smoking, which can cause a chronic dry cough
- Heart failure
- Long-term exposure to environmental chemicals and pollutants
- Abrupt change in temperature
- Collapsed lung
- Lung cancer
Over-the-Counter Medications for Dry Cough
If you have a dry cough caused by a viral infection like a cold, it should clear up on its own within one to two weeks. The appropriate medicinal treatment for a dry cough will vary depending on the underlying cause.
Below are several natural treatments that can help improve your symptoms.
- Medicated throat lozenges. These lozenges often contain honey, lemon, eucalyptus, and other natural remedies shown to soothe sore throat pain and dry cough. So, sucking on lozenges can be an effective home remedy for this issue.
- OTC cough medicines, commonly known as cough suppressants, to reduce the cough reflex. Popular brands include Robitussin and Vicks Formula 44. You can also suck on menthol cough drops.
- OTC expectorants to make the cough more productive. Popular brands include Robitussin Chest Congestion and Muccinex.
Natural Treatments and Home Remedies for Dry Cough
Using a Humidifier
Humidifiers, which add moisture to the air, are excellent at improving a dry cough. These machines are beneficial during the winter, as the heat from furnaces dries out the air, which can irritate your throat.
Using a humidifier in your bedroom at night can help alleviate symptoms such as mucus buildup, difficulty breathing, and discomfort.
If you have young children, using a cool-mist vaporizer instead of a humidifier with heating elements and hot water is important, as the latter can pose a burn risk if accidentally tipped over.
Did you know that honey has anti-inflammatory properties that can help reduce inflammation in the throat? It can also help break down mucus and soothe sore throats. You can try adding honey to a cup of warm tea or warm water with lemon or eat a spoonful every time the coughing returns.
According to a review conducted in 2018 (3), honey is just as effective as diphenhydramine (the active ingredient in Benadryl) for children with a cough. However, it wasn’t found to be as effective as dextromethorphan (the active ingredient in Delsym and Robitussin).
Important note: do not give honey to a baby less than 1 year old, as it can cause potentially fatal botulism in infants.
Drinking warm liquids, such as tea or soup, can quickly relieve sore and scratchy throats by adding moisture. Additionally, staying hydrated through fluids is crucial for the healing process.
In cases of dry cough, drinking at least 8 glasses of water per day is recommended to keep the throat moist. Remember, the more fluids you consume, the better.
One helpful way to alleviate dry and irritated nasal passages and throat is inhaling warm or hot water vapor. This can also relieve (4) sore throats and reduce coughs.
To heat water for inhalation therapy, you can use a microwave, kettle, or stove. After heating the water, transfer it to a bowl and cover your head and the bowl with a towel. Breathe in the warm and moist air for 2 to 3 minutes.
A viable alternative would be to indulge in a hot shower or bath and inhale the steam as you soak. If you desire only the steam, simply shut the bathroom door, switch on the hot shower, and let the steam accumulate. Inhale deeply to fully absorb the humid air.
Salt Water Gargle
Using salt water as a gargle can help reduce inflammation and promote healing. Additionally, the salt in the mixture has antibacterial properties that can kill harmful bacteria in the mouth and throat.
According to a 2019 study, gargling with salt water three times a day can reduce cough duration by 2.4 days and decrease vocal hoarseness, sneezing, and a blocked nose.
To create a saltwater gargle, simply mix 1/2 teaspoon of salt with 8 ounces of warm water. Take a sip and tilt your head back to gargle gently for 30 seconds before spitting it out. Remember not to swallow the salt water.
Saline Nasal Spray
If you are experiencing a dry cough or scratchy throat, using saline nasal spray may help. This spray can flush out excess mucus and allergens from your nasal passages and moisturize them. This can relieve dryness, itching, and even nosebleeds caused by irritation.
You can purchase saline nasal sprays over the counter at drugstores, grocery stores, and online.
When to See a Doctor for Dry Cough
If you have a dry cough that worsens, persists, or leads to the production of blood or green mucus, it’s essential to seek medical help. Additionally, it’s necessary to consult a doctor if any of the following symptoms accompanies a dry cough:
- Breathing difficulties
- A sensation of something stuck in the throat
- Trouble swallowing
In addition, it’s important to see a doctor if a cough continues for more than 8 weeks (6) as it may indicate an underlying medical condition.
Dealing with a persistent dry cough can be frustrating. Luckily, a variety of natural remedies can provide some relief. These include gargling with salt water, consuming honey, drinking warm liquids, using a humidifier, and inhaling steam.
If you’re uncertain about the cause of your cough, it’s important to consult with a doctor to determine the most effective treatment plan. In the meantime, combining home remedies and over-the-counter medications can help alleviate symptoms.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is dry cough a symptom of?
The causes of a dry cough can vary, the most common being a recent cold or flu, known as a post-viral cough. Other possible causes may include asthma, chronic acid reflux (GERD), or allergies. Less common causes of a dry cough may include environmental factors, such as a dry atmosphere, abrupt changes in temperature, or air pollution.
How do you get rid of a dry cough
Identifying and treating the underlying cause of a dry cough can eventually help you get rid of it. You can also take an over-the-counter cough suppressant or suck on cough drops or lozenges. In addition, the following natural home remedies may help:
- Use a humidifier to add moisture to the air.
- Eat a spoonful of honey, or mix it into a glass of warm water and drink it. Honey can reduce the inflammation that leads to a sore throat and a dry, persistent cough.
- Drink warm liquids like tea.
- Try steam inhalation, where you breathe steam vapor.
- Practice salt water gargling several times a day.
- Use a saline nasal spray to flush out excess mucus and allergens.
Does COVID start with a dry cough?
One of the common symptoms of COVID-19 is a dry cough, also called an unproductive cough, because it doesn’t result in any phlegm or mucus. Other COVID-19 symptoms that may occur with a dry cough are postnatal drip, fever, chills, headache, fatigue, and muscle aches.