A dry cough is the kind that produces little or no mucus or phlegm. It’s closely related to tickly coughs; in fact, the terms “dry” and “tickly” are often used interchangeably, as both are known as non-productive coughs, as opposed to wet coughs, where mucus is produced.
A dry cough is most often the result of infection by cold and flu viruses or caused by irritation to nerve endings in the throat. They are often triggered by atmospheric pollutants (such as cigarette smoke) that irritate your throat. In most of these situations, dry coughs occur because the back of your throat (or pharynx) becomes irritated or inflamed, but they may also arise from deeper in the chest if stubborn mucus is present.
Any cough can be a nuisance, but it becomes especially troublesome when it affects your sleep. A vicious cycle can develop: if you’re tired, recovering from any infection or illness can take longer.
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The common causes of dry coughs are:
- Viral infections: Common examples include the common cold and flu. Coughs as a result of these infections may occur at the start of the illness or more likely, towards the middle or end of the infection, and may linger long after other symptoms have disappeared.
- Post-nasal drip: This is characterized by excess mucus forming in the nasal cavity that drips down the back of the throat. Over time, post-nasal drip can irritate the nerves at the back of the throat and trigger a dry cough.
- Allergies: Hay fever, an allergy to grass and tree pollen, can cause irritation to the eyes and nose, and when the throat is affected, a cough results. If you’re unsure about whether or not your dry cough is related to hay fever, try taking our quick test to find out. Sensitivity to other particles such as animal fur or dust, collectively known as allergic rhinitis, can also contribute to dry coughs. Coughs resulting from these triggers can often be more persistent, especially if the allergen is constantly nearby!
- Pollution: Less obvious allergens such as air pollutants can also irritate the back of the throat, causing a dry cough.
- Acid reflux: Digestive complaints such as acid reflux or heartburn are now more readily accepted as a cause of dry coughs. The acidic contents of the stomach travelling upwards to the back of the throat can cause irritation. Minute amounts of acid can even enter the upper respiratory tract, causing inflammation and further symptoms. Coughing as a result of acid reflux is more likely when you’re lying down flat. Acid reflux is a prominent element of GERD (Gastro-esophageal Reflux Disease).
- Smoking: Although a smoker’s cough is typically wet, it may start off as dry cough and gradually develop into a more chronic, wet cough as your chest becomes more congested. When non-smokers are initially exposed to cigarette smoke (for example when entering into a smoky room), they will often naturally present with a dry cough.
Other causes of a dry cough to be aware of include:
- Side-effects of medication: Some medications, particularly those used to treat high blood pressure, such as ACE inhibitors, can cause side effects such as persistent, dry coughs.
- Psychological conditions: Also sometimes referred to as a psychogenic cough, this is when coughing has become a habit or a nervous response. There is no physical illness behind the cough and people often don’t even realize they’re coughing. A feature of this type of cough is that it goes away when you’re asleep.
- Nerves and stress: Many people cough when in a stressful situation. Breathing becomes shallow when you’re anxious, and this can trigger the cough reflex. Some people tend to be more anxious than others, and for them the “natural” nervous cough can become a problem if they find themselves in uncomfortable situations. Often, the underlying problem will have to be addressed in order to cure the dry cough.
- Menopause: Although not widely recognized, changing hormones can give rise to changes in the respiratory tract. Falling estrogen levels during menopause can dry out the mucous membranes that line the respiratory tract and in turn, give rise to symptoms such as wheezing and a dry cough. In some cases these symptoms may get mistaken for the development of a condition such as asthma.
Depending on the cause of your dry cough the symptoms may vary; however, some common symptoms include:
- A dry or tickly cough: This isn’t a productive cough, meaning that no mucus is present when you cough.
- A sore or tickly throat: This is often caused by irritation or inflammation of nerve endings in the throat.
- Chest pain: Muscles in the chest or even the abdomen can become strained if coughing is persistent.
A dry cough that lingers for more than three weeks may be the result of an underlying medical condition such as:
- Snoring or sleep apnea: Snoring and/or sleep apnea can irritate the back of the throat which over time can give rise to a persistent, dry cough when you wake up.
- Whooping cough: This is a bacterial disease caused by Bordetella pertussis characterized by bouts of coughing followed by gasping for air with a distinctive “whoop” sound. It’s not as common as it used to be, though it has made a bit of a comeback in recent years, especially in younger children.
- Asthma: This is a common, chronic disease that can cause your airways to become inflamed and partially blocked during an attack. Asthma commonly develops in young children, but can also develop later in life, at which point it is known as adult-onset asthma. In suspected cases of adult-onset asthma, other potential underlying causes such as the side effects of medication should always be ruled out first.
- Tuberculosis: Commonly referred to as TB, it’s a highly infectious bacterial disease that primarily affects the lungs. In its early stages, it gives rise to a persistent dry cough. TB was once believed to be extinct worldwide, but the number of cases has increased recently because of a combination of drug resistance and lowered immune resistance.
- Heart disease: This is one of the most common causes of ill health in the western world. Heart problems can eventually lead to heart failure and contribute to a build up of fluid in the lungs and a persistent cough. Coughs as a result of heart conditions are often most troublesome at night.
- More serious lung conditions: A persistent cough can also be a sign of other lung conditions, including lung cancer. It’s always best to get this checked by your doctor if your symptoms persist and there is no obvious cause.
- Keep properly hydrated: Especially when it comes to a dry cough, drier mucous membranes will only aggravate the problem. Keep properly hydrated to help keep the throat moist and prevent further irritation. Drink plenty of plain, still water daily—at least 1.5 litres or even more if you’re fighting an infection, exercising more or are in a warmer environment.
- Boost your vitamin C intake: Especially if your cough is the result of an infection, it could suggest that your immune system could do with some extra support. Vitamin C in fruit is a great addition to your diet. You can also add some slices of citrus fruits to some herbal tea or hot water.
- Honey: Traditionally used to help relieve sore throats, honey can be particularly useful to help soothe dry or tickly coughs. Thick, sticky honey is soothing for the throat and tends to leave a protective layer on the tissues lining the back of the throat. Manuka honey has a Unique Manuka Factor (UMF) thought to be especially beneficial if an infection is present.
- Steam inhalation: Inhaling steam can help hydrate a dry respiratory tract and help to lessen some of the symptoms of a dry cough. Try adding a few drops of eucalyptus essential oil for best effect.
- Rest up: Especially if an infection has been the root cause, resting will help support your immune system and the recovery process.
If the cause of your cough is obvious, then treating the underlying problem is going to give you the best chance of relief.
For instance, echinacea can help the symptoms of the common cold (including coughs). Research has shown that it works by maintaining the body’s resistance to infection by strengthening the immune system.
If allergies or hay fever are the root cause, then Allergy Relief may be helpful instead. Allergy Relief Tablets are non-drowsy and can provide relief from the symptoms of hay fever and allergic rhinitis.
Then, to help target the symptoms of your dry cough more specifically, our Soothing Cough Syrup can come in handy. Containing extracts of spruce buds, this remedy is ideal for treating dry and tickly coughs originating in the throat.
Herbs such as mullein and marshmallow can help treat dry coughs originating both in the throat and deeper down in the chest. This is especially useful if stubborn mucus is likely to be contributing to your cough.
Conventional medications such as cough suppressants aim to reduce the activity of the cough reflex.
Painkillers may also be suggested as they may help with the irritation caused by persistent coughing, but they often won’t help tackle the underlying cause. We should be careful not to take painkillers unnecessarily.
If an allergy is the root cause, conventional antihistamines may help you manage your symptoms. PPI medications may be administered by your doctor if acid reflux is indicated.
Many cough medications may be prescribed by your doctor or are available without a prescription from a pharmacy. Please be aware that if you feel that any medication your doctor prescribed isn’t working, ask him or her to investigate your symptoms further.
Note: If a child under 2 years is coughing, self medication isn’t suitable, so consult a pediatrician.
As we now know, dry coughs can also be caused by conditions other than cold or flu infections or allergies. It would be time to visit your doctor if you experience any of the following symptoms:
- You’re pregnant and have developed a persistent cough (many remedies and medications may not be suitable for you so it’s best to double-check).
- You suffer from a persistent, unexplained cough lasting longer than three weeks.
- You have a severe cough that’s getting worse rather than better.
- You’re coughing up blood.
- You are short of breath.
- You feel pain in your chest when you cough.
- You’ve noticed changes in your voice.
- Swelling or lumps are forming in your neck.
- Your cough is accompanied by unexplained weight loss.
- You have a fever accompanied by a headache.
Echinacea is a traditional herb known to aid the body in its fight against colds and flu by supporting the immune system, but not all echinacea is made equal! Research shows that the fresher the herb, the more effective the remedy will be, which is why our Echinaforce cold and flu remedies are made using freshly harvested echinacea.