What is a dry cough?

A cough is a reflex action that clears your airway of irritants and mucus. There are two types of cough: productive and nonproductive. A productive cough produces phlegm or mucus, clearing it from the lungs. A nonproductive cough, also known as a dry cough, doesn’t produce phlegm or mucus.

Many things — from allergies to acid reflux — can cause a dry cough. In some cases, there’s no obvious cause.

Regardless of the cause, an ongoing dry cough can seriously impact your day-to-day life, especially if it’s worse at night.

Keep reading to learn more about the possible causes of a dry cough and ways to find relief.

Common causes

Asthma

Asthma is a condition in which your airways swell and become narrowed. Asthma-related coughs can be both productive and nonproductive, but they’re frequently nonproductive.

Coughing is a common symptom of asthma, but it’s usually not the most prominent one. However, there’s a type of asthma called cough variant asthma (CVA) that includes a chronic dry cough as its main symptom.

Other symptoms of asthma can include:

  • wheezing
  • shortness of breath
  • tightness or pain in the chest
  • trouble sleeping because of wheezing or coughing
  • coughing or wheezing attacks
  • a whistling sound while exhaling

Long-term asthma treatment often involves long-acting medications like inhaled corticosteroids, such as:

  • fluticasone (Flovent)
  • triamcinolone (Azmacort)
  • budesonide (Pulmicort)

Short-acting medications used for treatment of occasional asthma attacks include bronchodilator inhalers such as albuterol (Proventil, Ventoline). These can also be part of a long-term treatment plan. Find out which type of treatment is best for you.

Gastroesophageal reflux disease

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a type of chronic acid reflux. It happens when stomach acid regularly flows back up into your esophagus, which connects your mouth to your stomach. Stomach acid can irritate your esophagus and trigger your cough reflex.

Other symptoms of GERD:

Most people find relief from GERD through a combination of lifestyle changes and over-the-counter (OTC) acid reducers such as omeprazole (Prilosec) and lansoprazole (Prevacid). You can also try these home remedies for acid reflux and GERD.

Postnasal drip

Postnasal drip refers to extra mucus dripping down your throat. When you have a cold or seasonal allergies, the membranes in your nose respond by producing more mucus than usual. Unlike normal (healthy) mucus, this mucus is watery and runny, so it drips easily down the back of your throat.

Postnasal drip can tickle the nerves in the back of your throat, triggering a cough.

Other symptoms of postnasal drip include:

  • sore throat
  • feeling of a lump in the back of the throat
  • trouble swallowing
  • runny nose
  • coughing at night

Treatment for postnasal drip will depend on what’s causing it. It’s usually the result of allergies, a bacterial infection, or a virus.

Regardless of the underlying cause, steam from a hot shower or tea pot can help to clear out your sinuses. A saline nasal spray or neti pot can also help to flush out extra mucus.

Viral infection

When you get infected with one of the many viruses that cause the common cold, your short-term symptoms usually last less than a week. It’s not uncommon, however, for a cough to linger long after your other symptoms have improved.

These post-cold coughs are usually dry and can last for up to two months. They’re usually the result of irritation in your airway, which is often overly sensitive after a viral illness.

This type of cough is difficult to treat and often requires time and patience. Coughing only increases the irritation in your airway, so try using throat lozenges and warm liquids to soothe your throat. This may help to reduce your coughing, giving your airway a chance to heal.

Less common causes

Environmental irritants

There are many things in the air that can irritate your airways, including smoke, pollution, dust, mold, and pollen. Chemical particles, such as sulfur dioxide or nitric oxide, can also cause problems. Even clean air that’s too dry or too cold can cause a dry cough for some people.

If you live in a dry climate, try using a humidifier to add some moisture to the air in your home.

ACE inhibitors

ACE inhibitors, such as enalapril (Vasotec) and lisinopril (Prinivil, Zestril), are prescription drugs that treat a variety of conditions, including high blood pressure.

One of the most common side effects of ACE inhibitors is a chronic dry cough. According to Harvard Health, around 20 percent of people taking ACE inhibitors experience a dry cough.

Whooping cough

Whooping cough, which is also called pertussis, is a very contagious condition that causes a severe dry cough. It’s followed up by a high-pitched “whoop” sound when you breathe in. It can be easily confused for a common cold in its early stages, but it eventually causes uncontrollable coughing fits.

Whooping cough used to be a common childhood disease, but now most children are vaccinated against it. Today, it’s more common in children too young to have completed their vaccinations or in teens and adults whose immunity has decreased overtime.

Collapsed lung

A collapsed lung, also known as a pneumothorax, happens when your lung suddenly deflates. It can happen either on its own or in response to a chest injury. It’s more common in people with underlying lung disease.

In addition to a dry cough, a collapsed lung can also cause sudden chest pain and shortness of breath.

Lung cancer

While it’s not likely, sometimes an ongoing dry cough can be a sign of lung cancer. A cough related to lung cancer usually doesn’t go away, and it might change over time. For example, your cough might become more painful or have a different sound. Other possible symptoms of lung cancer include:

  • coughing up blood, even a small amount
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain
  • wheezing
  • hoarseness
  • unexplained weight loss

If your dry cough is accompanied by any of these symptoms, contact your doctor. Especially if you smoke or have a family history of lung cancer.

Heart failure

Heart failure happens when your heart muscle doesn’t pump blood as well as it’s supposed to. It’s more common in people with conditions like coronary artery disease and high blood pressure, which can decrease your heart’s ability to pump blood effectively. A persistent, dry cough is one symptom of heart failure. However, it can also cause a cough that produces foamy white or pink-tinted mucus.

Other symptoms of heart failure include:

  • shortness of breath that may be sudden or severe
  • fatigue and weakness
  • rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • swelling in your legs, ankles, and feet
  • lack of appetite or nausea
  • abdominal swelling
  • fluid retention
  • trouble concentrating

How can I get rid of it?

Dry coughs can be difficult to treat. Once your airways become overly sensitive, they’re easily irritated by coughing, creating a vicious cycle. There are a few things you can do for relief, regardless of what’s causing your cough.

Try:

  • sucking on throat lozenges to moisturize and soothe irritated throat tissue
  • taking OTC cough suppressants, such as dextromethorphan (Robitussin), to suppress your cough reflex
  • adding honey to a hot drink to soothe irritated throat tissue

You can also try these seven natural remedies for coughing.

The bottom line

Dry coughs can be annoying, especially when they seem to drag on for weeks. If it starts to wreak havoc on your sleep schedule, try these tips to stop coughing at night.

If you’re not sure what’s causing it, work with your doctor to figure out the best course of treatment. In the meantime, a combination of home remedies and OTC medications can provide some relief.