Symptoms A-Z

Dry Cough Symptoms, Causes & Common Questions

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.

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Dry Cough Symptoms Explained

You're in one of the most important meetings of your life and the director of your company has flown across the country to lead a discussion on your company's growth. You obviously want to make the perfect first impression.

You've practiced what you're going to say over and over in your mind or even in the mirror, but when the moment comes, a dry cough suddenly erupts. You excuse yourself and take a sip of water, but this cough persists. You're embarrassed, defeated, and the director looks less than impressed.

A dry cough, while normally a symptom of a common illness or condition, can signal serious health problems [1].

Common characteristics of a dry cough

If you're experiencing a dry cough, it can likely be described by the following [2,3].

It can be normal for dry cough symptoms to last a week or two. At the most, they should clear up within three weeks. After a viral illness, some coughs can last up to eight weeks [3].

However, a cough that sticks around for more than eight weeks (or four weeks in children) is considered a chronic cough and should be evaluated and treated [3].

Dry Cough Causes

In many cases, a dry cough doesn't breed concern as it's accompanied by other symptoms that signal a simple cold. But if your cough is persistent, consider other common causes of a dry cough [1].

Illness-related dry cough causes

It's very 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 [4].
  • Bronchitis: The most common symptom of bronchitis is a dry cough. After a few days, the cough could begin to bring up mucus [5].

Lifestyle choices

The following lifestyle choices can result in a dry cough [6].

  • Smoking: Smoking irritates the throat, leading to a dry and persistent cough. Heavier smokers may experience a wetter cough that's worse in the morning.
  • Habit cough: Though not a conscious lifestyle choice, some people experience a persistent dry cough for no apparent reason. The cough is considered a subconscious habit.

Conditions and diseases

Various conditions can have a dry cough as a symptoms.

  • 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 may be especially true after exposure to irritants like cold air or ambient smoke [7].
  • Sleep apnea: A 2007 report found a link between sleep apnea and a chronic dry cough [8].
  • 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 [1].

Lung-related dry cough causes

Lung-specific disorders can result in a dry cough, such as the following.

  • Pulmonary embolism: PE, or blood clots in the lungs, can be a life-threatening condition. Chest pain and shortness of breath are more common symptoms, but a sudden dry cough can be a sign [4].
  • 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, a persistent cough warrants a visit to your health practitioner [6,9].

9 Possible Dry Cough Conditions

The list below shows results from the use of our quiz by Buoy users who experienced dry cough. This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

Bronchitis

Acute bronchitis is an inflammatory reaction to an infection in the airways. Most cases of acute bronchitis are caused by a viral infection, although some cases may be due to a bacterial infection.

Symptoms include an acute-onset cough with or without sputum production, low-grade fever, shortness of breat...

Benign cough

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.

Rarity: Common

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

Urgency: Self-treatment

Common cold

The common cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract, which includes the nose, mouth, sinuses, throat, and larynx. There are over 200 viruses that can cause upper respiratory infections, and usually the exact virus behind a cold is never known.

The common cold is, of course, very common...

Bacterial pneumonia

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. Emergency room is only needed for severe cases or for those with immune deficiency.

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.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: fatigue, cough, headache, loss of appetite, shortness of breath

Symptoms that always occur with bacterial pneumonia: cough

Urgency: In-person visit

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Viral pneumonia

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.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: fatigue, headache, cough, shortness of breath, loss of appetite

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Viral throat infection

A viral throat infection is an infection of the throat, or pharynx, that is caused by viruses. Viruses are different from bacteria such as Streptococcus pyogenes (which causes "strep throat"). Viral infections are the most common cause of sore throats in children and adu...

Chronic bronchitis

By definition, chronic bronchitis describes a productive cough lasting more than three months at a time and occurring at least two years in a row. Chronic bronchitis is the less deadly but more bothersome side of the broader condition known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (...

Post-infectious cough

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.

Rarity: Uncommon

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

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.

Rarity: Common

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

How to Treat a Dry Cough

When a dry cough is an emergency

If you're experiencing any of the following dry cough symptoms, seek immediate medical attention.

At-home treatments for a dry cough

If you don't believe your dry cough symptoms are linked to anything serious, there are several at-home treatments you can try to encourage your body to eliminate the cause of your cough [10].

  • 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: Just as the name suggests, this treatment will suppress the urge to cough and include lozenges and cough syrups.
  • Increase fluids: Drinking more fluids, especially water, can keep the pharynx coated and reduce the tickling urge to cough.
  • Salt water: If your dry cough is caused by an irritated throat, gargling with salt water as needed will help. Salt removes water from mucous membrane cells, reducing swelling.
  • Avoid triggers: Dry coughs caused by chronic conditions, like asthma, can be minimized by avoiding individual triggers, such as cold and dry air, pollution, cigarette smoke, or excessive talking or yelling.

A dry cough can be a nuisance. If the cause of yours is considered serious, starting dry cough treatment as soon as possible is strongly advised. Otherwise, finding safe ways to suppress the cough is your best course of action.

FAQs About Dry Cough

Here are some frequently asked questions about dry cough.

Can a dry cough be contagious?

Yes, depending on the cause of a dry cough, it can be contagious. Dry coughs can be caused by post nasal drip, which means mucus dripping from the back of the nose into the throat causing irritation. Additionally, a dry cough can also be caused by smoking (smokers cough). Certain allergies can also lead to a dry cough. However, none of these causes are contagious. However, if you have a dry cough as part of a cold or infection, it can be contagious. It is difficult to know the cause of your cough without medical evaluation, so it is always necessary to cover your mouth [3].

Does asthma cause dry coughing?

Yes, asthma can cause a dry cough. This is often called cough variant asthma and can be triggered by the same triggers as normal asthma, including dust, cold air, stress, pollen, and 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 [7].

Can a dry cough be caused by allergies?

Yes, dry coughs often are caused by allergies. Cough variant asthma and upper airway cough syndrome are types of coughing syndromes that can be associated with particular allergies. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can also cause coughing and can be aggravated by food allergies.

Why is my dry cough worse at night?

A dry cough that is worse at night may be caused by gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), asthma, and post-nasal drip. GERD can be worse at night when you lie down as stomach contents, particularly stomach acid, can reflux out of the stomach and cause a cough by irritating the nerves of the esophagus. Asthma can be triggered by cold, dry air which tends to be present at night. Post nasal drip can also be more pronounced and cause worse coughing when an individual lies flat.

Why does my dry cough make me vomit?

Severe coughing can trigger vomiting. This, however, 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, however, or a severe string of coughs from some irritant can cause vomiting.

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Dry Cough

To diagnose this condition, your doctor would likely ask the following questions:

  • 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?

The above questions are also covered by our A.I. Health Assistant.

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions

Take a quiz to find out what might be causing your dry cough

Dry Cough Symptom Checker Statistics

People who have experienced dry cough have also experienced:

  • 8% Sore Throat
  • 5% Congestion
  • 4% Fatigue

People who have experienced dry cough were most often matched with:

  • 33% Bronchitis
  • 33% Benign Cough
  • 33% Common Cold

People who have experienced dry cough had symptoms persist for:

  • 32% Less than a week
  • 23% Two weeks to a month
  • 18% Over a month

Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from visits to the Buoy AI health assistant (check it out by clicking on “Take Quiz”).

Dry Cough Symptom Checker

Take a quiz to find out what might be causing your dry cough

References

  1. Cough Symptoms, Causes and Risk Factors. American Lung Association. Published July 13, 2016. American Lung Association Link
  2. Chew BH. Chronic Cough with Multiple Causes. Malaysian Family Physician. 2010;5(2):101-104.
  3. When A Cough Isn't Just A Cough. University of Wisconsin-Madison: University Health Services. University Health Services Link
  4. Acute Upper Respiratory Infection (Cold). UCSF Student Health & Counseling. UCSF Student Health & Counseling Link
  5. Acute Bronchitis: Overview. National Center for Biotechnology Information. Published September 7, 2017. NCBI Link
  6. Thompson EG, Husney A. Aging and Disability Resources. Network of Care. Published December 6, 2017. Network of Care Link
  7. Cough-Variant Asthma. The Asthma Center. The Asthma Center Link
  8. Birring SS, Ing AJ, Chan K, Cossa G, Matos S, Morgan MDL, Pavord ID. Obstructive Sleep Apnoea: A Cause of Chronic Cough. Cough Journal. 2007;3:7. BMC Link
  9. Symptoms of Lung Cancer. LungCancer.Co. LungCancer.Co Link
  10. Sultana S, Khan A, Safhi MM, Alhazmi HA. Cough Suppressant Herbal Drugs: A Review. International Journal of Pharmaceutical Science Invention. 2016;5(5):15-28. PubMed Link

Disclaimer: The article does not replace an evaluation by a physician. Information on this page is provided as an information resource only, and is not to be used or relied on for any diagnostic or treatment purposes.