Dry cough quiz
Take a quiz to find out what's causing your dry cough.
A persistent dry cough can be caused from a upper respiratory infection or bronchitis. Other common causes for a dry throat cough include asthma, smoking, or viral throat infection. Viral pneumonia and COPD are less common causes of dry cough. Read below for more information on causes and how to treat dry cough.
Dry cough symptoms explained
You're trying to have a meaningful conversation, and are struggling. You excuse yourself and take a sip of water, but your strange cough persists. You're embarrassed and irritated. A dry cough, often a symptom of a common illness or condition, can signal serious health problems.
Common characteristics of a dry cough
If you're experiencing a dry cough, it can likely resemble the following.
- A nagging tickle in the throat
- An absence of mucus
- A cough that sounds unproductive
- Causes poor sleep
- An absence of wheezing or congestion
Dry cough symptoms may last a week or two and should clear up within three weeks, at the most. After a viral illness, some coughs can last up to eight weeks. However, a cough that sticks around for more than eight weeks (or four weeks in children) is considered chronic and should be treated professionally.
Dry cough causes
The following details may help you better understand your symptoms. If your cough is persistent, consider other common causes of a dry cough and see a physician.
It's likely to experience a dry cough due to the following illnesses.
- Upper respiratory infections: More commonly known as a cold, URIs can cause a variety of coughs, including dry coughs. In 25% of cases, a dry cough can persist for four weeks.
- Bronchitis: The most common symptom of bronchitis is a dry cough. After a few days, the cough could bring up mucus.
The following habits can result in a dry cough.
- Smoking: Smoking irritates the throat, leading to a dry and persistent cough. Heavier smokers may experience a wet cough that's worse in the morning.
- Habit cough: A habit cough is not a conscious lifestyle choice, but some people experience a persistent dry cough for no apparent reason.
Various conditions can have a dry cough as a symptom.
- Asthma: Not all diagnosed with asthma will experience a dry cough. Cough-variant asthma does not produce classic symptoms, like shortness of breath or wheezing. Instead, a chronic and dry cough is the main symptom. This cough is especially likely after exposure to irritants like cold air or ambient smoke.
- Sleep apnea: A 2007 report found a link between sleep apnea and a chronic dry cough.
- Heart failure: While not a common cause of dry cough, a weak heart can cause fluid to back up into the lungs. Lung congestion can then cause a dry cough.
Lung-specific disorders can result in a dry cough, such as the following.
- Pulmonary embolism: PE, or blood clots in the lungs, are life-threatening. Chest pain and shortness of breath are more common symptoms, but a sudden dry cough can be a sign.
- Lung cancer: About half of those diagnosed with lung cancer have a persistent dry cough. If you're a heavy smoker or have a family history of lung cancer, visit a physician.
9 dry cough conditions
This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.
Viral throat infection
A sore throat is most often caused by the same viruses that cause influenza and the common cold. The illness spreads when an infected person coughs or sneezes, and then someone else inhales the airborne virus or touches a surface where it has landed.
Those most at risk for viral sore throat are children, smokers, those who work indoors with others, and anyone with a weakened immune system.
Symptoms include throat irritation; pain when swallowing or talking; red, swollen tonsils; fever; body aches; and cold-like symptoms of cough, sneezing, and runny nose.
If symptoms do not clear up within 24 hours – especially in children – a medical provider should be seen. A persistent sore throat can be a symptom of serious illness such as mononucleosis, measles, chickenpox, or croup.
Diagnosis is made through physical examination and throat swab.
Treatment involves rest, fluids, and over-the-counter pain relievers. Do not give aspirin to children. Antibiotics only work against bacteria and cannot help against a viral illness.
The best prevention is frequent and thorough handwashing.
Viral pneumonia, also called "viral walking pneumonia," is an infection of the lung tissue with influenza ("flu") or other viruses.
These viruses spread through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
Those with weakened immune systems are most susceptible, such as young children, the elderly, and anyone receiving chemotherapy or organ transplant medications.
Symptoms may be mild at first. Most common are cough showing mucus or blood; high fever with shaking chills; shortness of breath; headache; fatigue; and sharp chest pain on deep breathing or coughing.
Medical care is needed right away. If not treated, viral pneumonia can lead to respiratory and organ failure.
Diagnosis is made through chest x-ray. A blood draw or nasal swab may be done for further testing.
Antibiotics do not work against viruses and will not help viral pneumonia. Treatment involves antiviral drugs, corticosteroids, oxygen, pain/fever reducers such as ibuprofen, and fluids. IV (intravenous) fluids may be needed to prevent dehydration.
Prevention consists of flu shots as well as frequent and thorough handwashing.
Top Symptoms: fatigue, headache, cough, shortness of breath, loss of appetite
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Post-infectious cough is a cough that begins with a cold or other upper respiratory infection, but does not clear up when the infection does. Instead, it lingers for three weeks or more and becomes chronic.
Most susceptible are smokers, because the irritation from the smoke provokes the cough. Other common causes are post-nasal drip, asthma, and some high blood pressure medications.
Symptoms include an irritating sensation in the throat that may provoke severe bouts of coughing. Some coughing is normal and is part of the body's mechanism to clear the air passages and expel any foreign material, but such a cough should only be brief and intermittent.
A post-infectious cough can interfere with quality of life. A medical provider should be seen for help with the condition, both to ease the symptoms and to rule out a more serious cause for the coughing.
Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, and chest x-ray, with the goal of ruling out different conditions one by one until the actual cause is found and can be treated.
Top Symptoms: cough, congestion, clear runny nose, mucous dripping in the back of the throat, hoarse voice
Symptoms that always occur with post-infectious cough: cough
Symptoms that never occur with post-infectious cough: fever
Urgency: Phone call or in-person visit
The common cold is a contagious viral infection that can cause cough, congestion, runny nose, and sore throat. Most adults catch two to three colds per year, and kids can get more than eight colds each year.
Rest and drink plenty of fluids. Colds are contagious and can easily spread to other people, so if possible, avoid close contact with others, such as hugging, kissing, or shaking hands. Colds typically resolve within 7 to 10 days.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a progressive inflammation of the lungs that makes breathing difficult. It is caused by long-term exposure to irritating gases and/or dust particles, most often cigarette smoke.
Symptoms may take years to develop. They include a chronic cough with mucus (sputum), wheezing, chest tightness, fatigue, constant colds, swollen ankles, and cyanosis (blue tinge to the lips and/or fingernails.) Depression is often a factor due to reduced quality of life.
Treatment is important because there is a greater risk of heart disease and lung cancer in COPD patients. Though the condition cannot be cured, it can be managed to reduce risks and allow good quality of life.
COPD is commonly misdiagnosed and so careful testing is done. Diagnosis is made through patient history; physical examination; lung function tests; blood tests; and chest x-ray or CT scan.
Treatment involves quitting smoking and avoiding exposure to other lung irritants; use of inhalers to ease symptoms; steroids; lung therapies; and getting influenza and pneumonia vaccines as recommended.
Top Symptoms: fatigue, cough and dyspnea related to smoking, cough, shortness of breath, trouble sleeping
Symptoms that always occur with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (copd): cough and dyspnea related to smoking
Symptoms that never occur with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (copd): rectal bleeding
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Bronchitis is an inflammation of the bronchial tubes, the tiny airways in the lungs.
Acute bronchitis, or "chest cold," comes on suddenly and is caused by the same virus that causes the flu or the common cold. Chronic lasts at least three months and recurs over two years. It is caused by cigarette smoking and/or exposure to other pollutants.
Other risk factors are weakened immune system and gastric reflux (heartburn.)
Symptoms include cough with clear, greenish, or yellowish mucus; fatigue; mild headache; body aches; shortness of breath; low-grade fever; chest discomfort.
Acute bronchitis can lead to pneumonia. Chronic bronchitis is a form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and requires medical treatment.
Diagnosis is made with chest x-ray and sputum test.
Acute bronchitis lasts 7 to 10 days and needs good supportive care – rest, fluids, and over-the-counter pain relievers. Antibiotics do not work against viral illness.
Chronic bronchitis is treated with lifestyle changes – especially smoking cessation – and an inhaler or other lung medication.
Flu shots, frequent handwashing, and not smoking are the best prevention.
Benign cough means a cough that is not caused by any harmful condition or serious illness.
Postnasal drip, where mucous from the nose drains into the throat, can trigger a benign cough. So can asthma, exposure to dust or other irritants, acid reflux (heartburn or GERD,) some medications, and breathing very cold air. Postnasal drip itself can be caused by allergy, some medications, and deviated septum.
An occasional cough that brings up a slight amount of clear mucus is normal and helps clear the throat and lungs. The presence of blood or thick mucus is not normal and the person should see a medical provider.
If an unexplained cough persists for more than one month, it is important to identify the cause so that serious illness can be ruled out.
Diagnosis is made through patient history and physical examination, and sometimes through mucus testing, imaging, lung function tests, and bronchoscopy.
Treatment involves addressing any underlying causes, such as allergies. In some cases a cough suppressant may be prescribed.
Top Symptoms: cough, cough with dry or watery sputum, severe cough
Symptoms that always occur with benign cough: cough
Symptoms that never occur with benign cough: fever, severe cough, being severely ill, coughing up blood
Bacterial pneumonia is an infection of the lungs caused by one of several different bacteria, often Streptococcus pneumoniae. Pneumonia is often contracted in hospitals or nursing homes.
Symptoms include fatigue, fever, chills, painful and difficult breathing, and cough that brings up mucus. Elderly patients may have low body temperature and confusion.
Pneumonia can be a medical emergency for very young children or those over age 65, as well as anyone with a weakened immune system or a chronic heart or lung condition.
Complications may include organ failure and respiratory failure. Take the patient to the emergency room or call 9-1-1.
Diagnosis is made through blood tests and chest x-ray.
With bacterial pneumonia, the treatment is antibiotics. Be sure to finish all the medication, even if you start to feel better. Hospitalization may be necessary for higher-risk cases.
Some types of bacterial pneumonia can be prevented through vaccination. Flu shots help, too, by preventing another illness from taking hold. Keep the immune system healthy through good diet and sleep habits, not smoking, and frequent handwashing.
Top Symptoms: fatigue, cough, headache, loss of appetite, shortness of breath
Symptoms that always occur with bacterial pneumonia: cough
Urgency: In-person visit
How to treat a dry cough
When it is an emergency
If you're experiencing any of the following dry cough symptoms, seek immediate medical attention.
- You begin to cough up blood
- You have associated chest pain or fever
- Severe headache or ear pain
- The cough has severely intensified
If you don't believe your dry cough symptoms are linked to a condition requiring a doctor's care, there are several at-home treatments you can try.
- Oral demulcents: Demulcents soothe the pharynx and relieve irritation. You can try a cough syrup containing sugar and glycerol or add honey and lemon to warm water.
- Cough suppressants: Cough drops and cough syrups can suppress the urge to cough.
- Increase fluids: Drink more fluids, especially water, to keep the pharynx coated and reduce any tickle.
- Salt water: If your dry cough is caused by an irritated throat, gargling with salt water can help. Salt removes water from mucous membrane cells, reducing swelling.
- Avoid triggers: These triggers, such as cold and dry air, pollution, cigarette smoke, excessive talking or yelling exacerbate dry coughs from asthma.
When to see a doctor
See a doctor if your symptoms worsen or persist for more than eight weeks (four weeks in children).
FAQs about dry cough
Can a dry cough be contagious?
Yes, depending on the cause, a dry cough can be contagious. Dry coughs can be due to post-nasal drip, or mucus dripping from the back of the nose into the throat. Additionally, a dry cough can also be due to smoking (smoker's cough). Certain allergies can also lead to a dry cough. However, none of these causes are contagious. If you have a dry cough as part of a cold or infection, it can be contagious. Take precautions, like more frequent hand-washing and covering your mouth.
Does asthma cause dry coughing?
Yes, asthma can cause a dry cough. This type is often called cough-variant asthma and can be due to the same triggers as normal asthma. Triggers include dust, cold air, stress, pollen, and a change of seasons. Cough-variant asthma is confirmed by its responsiveness to standard treatments for asthma. If you take your asthma treatments as prescribed and continue to cough, you may have something other than cough-variant asthma.
Can a dry cough be due to allergies?
Yes, dry coughs often are caused by allergies. Cough-variant asthma and upper airway cough syndrome are syndromes associated with particular allergies. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can also cause coughing that worsens with food allergies.
Why is my dry cough worse at night?
A dry cough that is worse at night may due to gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), asthma, and post-nasal drip. GERD can worsen at night when you lie down as stomach contents, particularly stomach acid, can reflux out of the stomach and cause cough. Asthma can be due to cold, dry air often present at night. Post-nasal drip can also cause more coughing when you lie flat.
Why does my dry cough make me vomit?
Severe coughing can trigger vomiting. Vomiting in this situation is uncommon and should be evaluated by a medical professional. Chronic coughs like cough-variant asthma, gastroesophageal reflux (GERD), and post-nasal drip usually do not cause vomiting. A cough from a severe cold or a severe string of coughs from some irritant can cause vomiting.
Questions your doctor may ask about dry cough
- Any fever today or during the last week?
- Have you been feeling more tired than usual, lethargic or fatigued despite sleeping a normal amount?
- Do you have a sore throat?
- Do you currently smoke?
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