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What Causes a Dry Cough & How to Find Relief

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.

Infectious causes

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.

Habitual choices

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.

Medical causes

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.

Pulmonary causes

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.

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

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

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