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What You Should Know About A Dry Cough
What You Should Know About A Dry Cough
02 May 2022

What You Should Know About A Dry Cough

A persistent cough usually accompanies the flu or cold. When the cough is chesty and produces mucus or phlegm, a more serious issue may be the cause. Although a dry cough may be exhausting and irritating, many people do not feel it requires serious medical attention, even for the typical cough that constitutes COVID-19 symptoms.

Coughing is a protective reflex in response to irritants or inflammation and shouldn’t be ignored. A dry cough can become worse and have serious causes.

Types of dry cough

The five types of dry cough include:

  • Cough that doesn’t subside

A cough affecting you for a long period is a chronic cough (unlike the acute cough, which is sudden and lasts for a short time). This cough tends to worsen during the day and may lead to coughing fits. It can be persistent and painful, leading to incontinence or pulled muscles in older patients.

Non subsiding coughs can occur from various causes, including side effects of a medicine, inflammation, and allergies. Post-viral asthma or long COVID-19 infection may also cause this cough.

  • The tickly cough

Some people may experience an irritating, tickling feeling in their throat, leading to a persistent cough. This may be due to inflammation from the flu or cold virus or atmospheric factors such as climate or pollution. Postnasal drip, which involves mucus dripping down from the sinuses to the back of the throat, may cause this type of cough.

  • The barking cough

This sound from this cough is similar to the woof of a pup. It can occur during the day or at night, alongside wheezing. Inflammation after the flu or cold can cause this cough, and it may cause pain.

  • Plum pit cough

Some people experience a persistent feeling of a lump in the through. This lump doesn’t go away even when you swallow, and coughing gives a slightly acidic taste. This cough may be due to acid reflux or GERD (a condition that causes stomach acid to rise to the oesophagus).

  • Wheezy cough

Wheezy cough is usually worse at night or when you wake up and occurs with a wheezing sound (a high-pitched sound similar to a whistle). The wheezing sound is due to tightening of the airways or asthma.

Common causes of dry cough

Many conditions can cause a dry cough. They include:

  • Postnasal drip
  • Smoking
  • Acid reflux or GERD
  • Allergies or hay fever from dust, pet dander, second-hand smoke, and pollen
  • Climate (changes in temperature, cold and dry climates)
  • Sinusitis, bronchitis, tonsillitis
  • Viruses such as COVID-19
  • Asthma
  • Medication (possible side effect of ACE inhibitors)
  • Laryngitis (inflammation of the larynx, leading to loss of the voice)

Asthma and dry cough

About 10% of people with asthma do not have a diagnosis, so a check-up is necessary if you’ve been experiencing any chronic coughs. Asthmatic cough often occurs with a wheezing sound because of its effect on the airways.

Inflammation in the airways causes narrowing and tightening, leaving less space for air to travel through. Although a dry, wheezy cough is a sign of asthma, it may become more serious, leading to breathing difficulty.

However, a type of asthma known as cough variant asthma (CVA) has chronic dry cough as the main symptom.

Other common asthma symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • A whistling sound while exhaling
  • Pain or tightness in the chest
  • Coughing or wheezing attacks
  • Trouble sleeping due to coughing or wheezing

Treatments with long-term effects usually include long-acting medication such as inhaled corticosteroids. These medications include:

  • Budesonide (Pulmicort)
  • Triamcinolone (Azmacort)
  • Fluticasone (Flovent)

Common short-acting medication for treating occasional asthma attacks are bronchodilator inhalers, including albuterol (Ventoline, Proventil). These medications may be part of long-term treatment.

  • Allergic asthma

    Allergic asthma is similar to normal asthma, but it is triggered by allergens such as pollen, pet dander, dust, or mould. The reaction to allergens inflames the airways in the lungs, leading to difficulty breathing, cough, or a full-blown asthma attack.

    Cold weather, inhaling strong smells like perfumes, fumes, or smoke can also trigger this condition. Identifying your triggers can help in managing the condition.
  • Post-viral asthma

    In people with post-viral asthma, asthmatic symptoms worsen after a recent illness, a cold and flu infection, and persistent coughing. This condition may be due to the immune system’s response to an infection. Inflammation in the lungs can trigger swelling in the lungs.

    Preventing post-viral asthma is important, so the doctor may recommend flu shots and other preventive measures to keep flu at bay.

    People with COVID-19 may experience a cough for several weeks or months, with other accompanying symptoms including loss of stamina and breathlessness.
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)

    GERD is chronic acid reflux occurring from regular reflux of stomach acid into the oesophagus (a tube connecting the mouth to the stomach). Stomach acids irritate the oesophagus and may lead to a cough reflex.

    Other common GERD symptoms include:
  • Chronic cough
  • Chest pain
  • Heartburn
  • Mild hoarseness
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Chronic sore throat
  • Feeling a lump at the back of the throat
  • Regurgitation of sour liquid or food

    Over-the-counter (OTC) acid reducers like lansoprazole (Prevacid) and omeprazole (Prilosec) and lifestyle changes may relieve GERD symptoms.
  • Viral infection

    Viral infection from viruses can present short-term symptoms that last for less than one week. These symptoms include a cough, but treatment will be necessary if the cough continues after other symptoms improve.

    Post-viral coughs are often dry, lasting for about two months. They occur due to an irritation in the airways. The airways are overly sensitive following an illness caused by viruses. This cough is often difficult to treat and requires patience.

    Coughing increases irritation in the airways, but using warm liquids and throat lozenges can soothe the throat to reduce swelling and allow the airways to heal.

  • Postnasal drip

    This is the extra mucus dripping down the throat. During a seasonal or cold allergy, the membrane in the nose produces more mucus. Unlike the normal mucus, mucus from the postnasal drip is runny, so it goes down easily to the back of the throat. The mucus may make the nerves at the back of the throat sensitive, causing a cough.

    Some other postnasal drip symptoms include:

  • Trouble swallowing
  • Sore throat
  • Coughing at night
  • Runny nose
  • Feeling a lump in the back of the throat

Postnasal drip treatment often depends on its cause. In most cases, bacterial or viral infection causes allergies.

The steam from a teapot or hot shower can clear the sinuses and stop the postnasal drip. You can also use a neti pot or saline nasal spray to clear out extra mucus.

Less common causes of dry cough

  • Environmental irritants

    Different things can irritate the airways, such as pollen, dust, smoke, mould, and pollution. Chemical particles like nitric oxide and sulphur dioxide may also cause irritation. When clean air is too cold or dry, many people may experience a dry cough.

    If you are in an area with a dry climate, using a humidifier can increase moisture in the air inside your home or office.

  • ACE inhibitors


    ACE inhibitors like Lisinopril (Zestril, Prinivil) and enalapril (Vasotec) prescribed to treat different conditions such as high blood pressure have side effects. A common side effect is a chronic dry cough.

  • Collapsed lung


    Also called pneumothorax, a collapsed lung occurs from sudden lung deflation. This can happen without cause or as a response to a chest injury. A collapsed lung is more common in those with underlying lung disease.

    Other symptoms of a collapsed lung are shortness of breath and sudden, sharp pain in the chest.
  • Whooping cough

    Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is a contagious condition that leads to a severe dry cough. Many people confuse whooping cough as a common cold in the early stages of the condition, but the coughing fits become uncontrollable. The cough is often followed by a high-pitched whooping sound when breathing in.

    In the past, whooping cough was a common childhood disease, but nowadays most children receive  vaccination. It is only common in young children who haven’t completed their vaccination or adults and teens with decreased immunity.

  • Lung cancer

    In some cases, a dry cough may indicate lung cancer. Cough resulting from lung cancer may not stop and may change over time. The cough may sound differently or become more painful.

Other symptoms of lung cancer are:

  • Wheezing
  • Chest pain
  • Hoarseness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Coughing up blood

Contact your doctor if you experience a dry cough accompanied by these symptoms. This is particularly important if you have a family history of lung cancer or are a smoker.

  • Heart failure

    Heart failure occurs when the heart muscle does not pump enough blood. This often affects people with health conditions such as high blood pressure and coronary artery disease that reduce the heart’s ability to pump sufficient blood.

    A persistent dry cough is a heart failure symptom, but the cough may produce a pink-tinted or foamy white mucus.

Other heart failure symptoms include:

  • Irregular or rapid heartbeat
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Nausea or lack of appetite
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Fluid retention
  • Shortness of breath that may be severe or sudden
  • Swelling in the feet, ankles, and legs
  • Abdominal swelling

Treatment for dry cough

Treating dry cough is often difficult because once the airways are overly sensitive, they become easily irritated by coughing. A few things can relieve a dry cough, regardless of its cause.

They include:

  • Sucking on throat lozenges to soothe and moisturise your irritated throat tissues
  • Adding honey to your hot drinks to soothe the throat tissues
  • Taking over-the-counter cough suppressants such as dextromethorphan to suppress the cough reflex.

If your cough is persistent and doesn’t relieve with these remedies, ensure you see our doctor for diagnosis and treatment. 

When is a cough serious?

If a dry cough doesn’t resolve, ensure you schedule an appointment with your doctor. They can identify the cause of the cough and give proper treatment; whether the cough results from a minor illness or after an infection, a visit to the doctor is important. Early treatment gives a better chance of successful treatment.

A chronic dry cough may result from the following serious and fatal conditions, although this rarely occurs.

  • Heart failure

    A dry cough may be a sign of heart failure. This may be from a build-up of fluid in the lungs, occurring when the heart isn’t pumping properly. Coughing from fluid build-up is usually worse when you wake up and cause waking up feeling out of breath.
  • Pulmonary embolism

    Pulmonary embolism is a medical term for a blood clot in a hepatic artery. This clot often forms in other parts of the body and travels through the bloodstream to the lungs. The coughing is often accompanied by severe chest pain and blood. A pulmonary embolism is life-threatening and requires immediate treatment.
  • Lung cancer

    The early stages of lung cancer may not have any symptoms, but a cough may also occur as the condition develops. This cough may not go away and will be different from other types of cough you have had in the past. The cough may occur alongside repeated lung infections, colds, shortness of breath, and wheezing.

If you experience any type of cough, visit Medical Express Clinic to see a doctor for the right diagnosis. You can also call 020 7499 1991 to book a GP appointment.

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