Dry cough

Dr Sameer Advani


A cough is your body’s way of clearing the respiratory tract when an irritant gets stuck. There are two types of cough: Dry cough and wet cough. In dry cough, there is no phlegm or sputum. In a wet cough, one expels phlegm or mucus. It can result from many problems arising out of the lungs (bronchitis, pneumonia, asthma), cough and cold or reflux disease. It can be caused by lung cancer too. Smoking, cold foods, and deep-fries can increase the risk of dry cough.

Sometimes, people with dry cough will feel the presence of a lump in the throat. Others may feel a tickling sensation. It is usually seen in case of allergies, exposure to smoke or other irritants, mild sinusitis and viral infections of the upper respiratory tract, so on and so forth. Coughs triggered by cold or flu can have a duration of 1 week or 2 and clear up by 3 weeks at the most. On the other hand, they may last for 8 weeks after a viral illness.

Dry cough is considered chronic when it lasts for 8 weeks in adults and 4 weeks in children. It is acute and short-term if it persists for 2 weeks. However, it is known as prolonged acute cough if there the cough lasts for 2-4 weeks in kids.

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Dry cough characterises many illnesses starting from a hacking cough, whooping cough, and so on.

Hacking cough: Most commonly, you see a dry hacking cough in viral infections of the nose and throat. In this condition, you experience continuous sessions of cough and feel that something is stuck inside the throat. Your doctor may suggest treatment after examining the severity of the condition.

Barking cough or croup: You experience this if you are suffering from laryngitis (swelling or infection of the larynx). In this condition, when the patient coughs, there is pain in the throat and difficulty in breathing.

Whooping cough: The third type of dry cough would be a whooping cough caused by bacteria. This is a very uncommon occurrence nowadays because of vaccine programmes run by the government of India. This condition is usually seen only in children. It is a cough where a person coughs continuously, after which there is a characteristic whoop sound and strong intake of a breath.


Apart from coughing, major symptoms which may accompany dry cough are:

  • Blood in the sputum

  • Feeling breathless

  • Fever

  • Chest pain

  • Weight loss

Causes And Risk Factors


Various factors can contribute to dry cough, including irritants like dust and smoke; and ailments like asthma, reflux disease, and more. Here is a lowdown on the most common culprits behind a dry cough.


It is a condition that narrows down your airways by swelling them up. Asthma, in general, can manifest through both dry and wet cough, the latter being more common.

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)

This condition gives you what we call a heartburn. However, GERD can make you experience dry cough too. There are times when acid from your stomach flows back to your oesophagus, the tube-like structure that connects your mouth to the stomach. This leads to a dry cough.

Postnasal drip

In this condition, watery mucus from your nose flows through your throat, resulting in a dry cough at times. However, the cough triggered by postnasal drip can also be wet quite often. In most cases, sinus infection or nasal allergy can result in postnasal drip.

Viral infection in the upper respiratory tract

Sometimes, you experience a long-term cough even after recovering from a common cold caused by a viral infection. This cough, which can persist for as long as two months, can be dry and is often the result of irritation in your airways. It takes time to heal. So, you need to be patient with this stubborn cough.

Some unusual causes behind a dry cough could be lung cancer, a collapsed lung or heart failure.

Risk Factors

The risk factors for dry cough include:

Smoking: One of the significant risk factors for chronic cough is smoking. The coughing is caused due to the toxins breathed in the lungs during smoking.

Contact with someone who has respiratory infections: Getting on the radar of someone having contagious respiratory diseases can increase your chances of cough.

Allergies: When exposed to a particular trigger, some people have coughing as a reflex to their body being allergic to the stimulus.

Environmental factors: Smoke or irritants in the air can trigger a cough.

Chronic lung disease: People having asthma or COPD are more prone to cough and other airways problems.

Female gender: Women are more prone to develop coughing than men.


You can prevent dry cough by some simple changes like -

  • Quit smoking; try to use nicotine patches instead.

  • Eat a diet rich in fibre.

  • Avoid contact with anyone having pneumonia or bronchitis.

  • Keep yourself hydrated.

  • Make use of pillows to keep yourself in a straight and comfortable position.

  • Avoid going to places with a lot of smoke, dust or other pollutants that might trigger your symptoms.


Once you visit the doctor’s chamber, he will do a physical examination to figure out the nature of your cough. It will involve listening to your chest sounds to rule out congestion and checking your throat for any infection or inflammation. He may also suggest a few imaging tests to rule out any serious underlying condition.

Imaging tests: Imaging tests like X-ray, CT scan or bronchoscopy are done to check the infections and the condition of your windpipe and airways.

Spirometry: In this test, you will be required to breathe into a device. The aim is to test lung function and detect conditions like asthma.


The treatment for dry cough depends on the underlying cause that is triggering it.

Antihistamines: For an allergy-driven cough, your doctor may prescribe anti-histamines

Antibiotics: In case of a bacterial infection leading to your cough, he may suggest antibiotics.

Inhalers: When asthma is the reason behind your cough, you may need to inhale corticosteroids or bronchodilators. Corticosteroids work by bringing down swelling and inflammation of your airways while bronchodilators relax the muscles of your respiratory tract and widen them.

Steam inhalation: This can be particularly helpful if the reason behind your dry cough is a sinus infection or an allergic reaction. Steam inhalation moistens the airways and relieves a sore throat.

OTC cough syrups: They soothe your throat and offer symptomatic relief. They are formulated to treat dry cough.


You can manage the cough through self-treatment by following these small things1. If your cough is diagnosed as contagious, avoid spreading the disease by using a mask.

  • Stop smoking and do not stay on the radar of people who smoke.

  • Try to find out the irritant that is causing your cough and avoid it.

  • Use air vaporisers that help you decrease the congestion and soothe your throat.

  • Try to follow a proper treatment based on what is your physician has recommended.

  • Suck on hard candy as it increases the amount of salivation and helps you keep your throat moist.

  • You can use honey as it helps with an inflamed throat.

  • Try to Maintain sanitation by following techniques like use of sanitizer, avoiding shaking hands, covering your mouth while coughing, avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth.

Prognosis And Complications


Monitor if the cough lasts for more than four weeks in children and eight weeks in adults. It can be considered a chronic cough. If it harms your life, make sure you contact your physician to find the cause and get treated as soon as possible. Early diagnosis and treatment will help you relieve symptoms and live a better quality of life.


Dry cough negatively affects your life and can get in the form of your daily lifestyle. The most common problem you might face is insomnia. Non-stop cough also makes your muscles and ribs ache.

Complications like:

  • Headache

  • Dizziness

  • Loss of bladder control.

  • Hernia

  • Fainting

  • Bleeding in the eye.


  1. NCBI. Recommendations for management of cough in adults. [Internet] [Updated Sept 01, 2006]. Available at:

  2. Lung health. Cough, Symptoms. [Internet] [Updated Feb 04, 2021]. Available at:

  3. Cleveland Clinic. Chronic Cough. [Internet] [Updated Dec 15, 2020]. Available at:

  4. Lung Health. Cough, Treatment. [Internet] [Updated Feb 04, 2021]. Available at:


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