Dry Cough: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment
If you’ve experienced a dry cough, you’ll know how it can interrupt your daily routine. You might have a dry cough at night that impacts your sleep or a constant dry cough that affects your regular work and activities.
But don’t worry, most dry coughs are common and usually clear up on their own within three to four weeks. In the meantime, there are steps you can take to help alleviate your symptoms.
Read on to find out more about the common symptoms and causes of dry coughs, as well as the key differences between a dry cough vs wet cough. We’ll also outline some of the dry cough remedies and treatments you can try at home that might offer relief.
What is a dry cough?
Coughing is your body’s automatic response to an irritant in your throat or airways. Your cough reflex helps clear your upper and lower airways to protect your lungs. There are many types of cough: each with its own unique symptoms. So, what is a dry cough and how does it differ from other coughs?
A dry cough is also known as an unproductive cough because, unlike a wet or chesty cough, it doesn’t produce any phlegm or mucus. Instead, dry coughs are typically caused by an inflammation of the upper airways from an infection, dust, or fumes.
Dry cough symptoms vary depending on the cause, but may include the following:
- A tickly sensation in the throat.
- No production of phlegm with the cough.
- A feeling like you have something stuck in your throat, which doesn’t go away with coughing.
- Increased breathlessness and wheezing.
- A hacking cough that can cause irritation and leave your chest muscles aching.
- Other cold-like symptoms.
If your dry cough lasts more than three weeks, this is usually considered a persistent dry cough. Similarly, if your cough lasts longer than eight weeks, it would be classed as a chronic cough. Chronic coughing is also common, affecting up to two in 10 adults. If your cough persists for more than 3 weeks or worsens, you should speak to your GP. They can help you find a potential cause for your persistent or chronic dry cough.
What causes a dry cough?
Dry coughs are often caused by viral illnesses, such as cold and flu. These types of upper respiratory tract infections (URTIs) are usually seasonal and can include other symptoms, such as sneezing and a fever. They’re likely to get better on their own within a few weeks. However, if your cough persists or worsens, you should speak to your doctor.
Some other causes of dry coughs can include:
Allergic reactions to pollen, dust, mould, and pet dander can cause a chronic dry cough. You might notice you cough more in certain environments or at specific times of the year, especially during peak hay fever seasons. You may also experience other symptoms with your dry cough, such as sneezing and itchy skin, eyes or nose.
Asthma flare-ups might cause a tight chest, dry cough, and shortness of breath. Cough variant asthma (CVA), which is asthma that presents itself as a cough, is also one of the most common causes of chronic coughing.
Inhaling an irritant
Breathing in dust, smoke or chemical fumes can also cause an acute dry cough,.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
Persistent and unexplained dry coughs, particularly at night, are sometimes caused by GERD. Other symptoms usually include heartburn and acid reflux, which then causes acid to spill into the airways.
How to get rid of a common dry cough
Typically, it’s not necessary to see a doctor about your dry cough, as most coughs clear up on their own within three weeks. If you want to alleviate your dry cough symptoms, you can try some simple at-home dry cough remedies and treatments. These include:
- Taking time to rest and recover.
- Drinking plenty of fluids to keep hydrated.
- Drinking a hot lemon and honey drink to soothe any discomfort in your throat.
- Treating any pain with paracetamol or ibuprofen.
You should also prioritise staying at home and avoiding contact with other people, to reduce the chances of passing on any underlying illness.
For acute coughs (those that last for a short duration of up to three weeks), over-the-counter medication may also help soothe any irritation and help you cough less – though it will not stop you coughing completely. Medicines for dry coughs that contain dextromethorphan, such as Benylin® Dry Coughs medicine, can help suppress the cough mechanism and reduce your urge to cough.
For dry coughs at night, a cough medicine like Benylin® Dry Coughs Night Syrup that contains dextromethorphan, diphenhydramine and levomenthol offers a three-prong approach – suppressing your cough.
If a persistent dry cough is caused by smoking or acid reflux, you may want to consider making dietary and lifestyle changes to help reduce your symptoms, such as, stopping smoking and cutting out acidic foods. Similarly, dry coughs resulting from asthma or allergic reactions may be alleviated by managing the underlying condition. You should discuss this with your GP.
When to see a doctor
Whether you know what’s causing your dry cough or not, there are some circumstances when you should consult a GP. Speak to your doctor if,:
- You have a persistent dry cough lasting more than three weeks.
- Your cough is very bad or quickly gets worse – for example, you have a hacking cough or cannot stop coughing.
- You’re experiencing a tight chest, dry cough, and shortness of breath.
- You have a dry cough with chest pain.
- You experience unexplained weight loss.
- There’s a persistent change in your vocal cords and voice.
- You have lumps in your neck or swollen glands.
- You feel very unwell
- You have a weakened immune system – for example, because of chemotherapy or diabetes
Seek immediate medical advice if you cough up blood.
Your doctor may conduct some tests to figure out the cause of your dry cough symptoms. This might include a chest X-ray, allergy test and breathing assessment. Anyone with a weakened immune system from an underlying health condition should also seek medical advice if they develop a dry cough.