A cough is simply a way irritants are cleared from your airways.
A dry cough is also known as an “unproductive cough.” That’s because a dry cough is one that doesn’t bring up any sputum, or phlegm from your airways.
Many conditions can trigger a dry cough and chest pain. Read on to learn about these causes, your treatment options, and symptoms to watch for.
The causes of a dry cough and chest pain can range from mild, short-term conditions to underlying diseases:
Asthma is an inflammation and narrowing of the airways. Your coughs may be dry or productive and bring up mucus from affected airways.
Other symptoms of asthma include chest tightness and pain as well as wheezing and shortness of breath.
Common triggers of an asthma attack include:
- certain foods
- cold viruses
- allergens in the air, such as dust mites and pollen
Your doctor may recommend medications or lifestyle changes to help manage your asthma.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
GERD develops when you have severe acid reflux. Acid reflux is the backward movement of stomach acid into your esophagus.
Acid reflux occurs when there’s a problem with the esophageal sphincter. This is the muscle at the bottom of the esophagus that controls the flow of food and fluids into the stomach.
GERD can trigger:
- sour taste in the mouth
- dry cough
GERD can lead to serious damage to the esophagus if left untreated. If you’re experiencing acid reflux more than twice a week, see a healthcare provider for treatment.
A viral or bacterial infection of your respiratory system can cause many symptoms. Sometimes those symptoms can help identify the nature of the infection.
For example, a common cold is usually a virus that causes a cough, runny nose, low-grade fever, and a sore throat. Influenza is also a virus that can cause those symptoms, as well as body aches and pains and a higher-grade fever.
A respiratory virus tends to peak after a few days and then gradually improve. No treatment is necessary other than rest, fluids, and anti-inflammatory medications for fever and inflammation. Antibiotics can’t treat viruses.
Bacterial infections tend to worsen as the days go on. They typically require a doctor’s evaluation and antibiotics to resolve.
In the final days of a viral or bacterial infection, you may have a dry cough.
Countless environmental irritants can cause a dry cough as well as a tightness in the chest. They include:
Very cold air and dry air can also lead to dry coughs.
You can often get relief by avoiding the irritant.
Pneumothorax is the medical name for a collapsed lung. A traumatic injury from an accident or high-contact sport, lung disease, or even severe air pressure changes can cause it.
Symptoms of a collapsed lung include:
- dry cough
- shortness of breath
- sudden chest pain
A collapsed lung often requires medical treatment. In some minor cases, a collapsed lung can heal on its own.
Early symptoms of lung cancer can include:
- a lingering, worsening cough
- cough with bloody sputum
- chest pain that gets worse with deep breathing and coughing
Many cases of lung cancer are due to smoking cigarettes. If you smoke, take advantage of the many free resources to help you quit.
Treatment for lung cancer varies depending on the stage of the disease. It may include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy.
Symptoms of heart failure include:
- persistent cough
- shortness of breath
- swelling of the legs and ankles
- heart palpitations
- extreme fatigue
Heart failure is a serious condition that requires ongoing medical care by a cardiologist.
Seek immediate medical attention if you’re having sudden, severe, and unexplained chest pain.
If you’re experiencing a lingering dry cough and chest pain for a week or two that’s not getting better, see your doctor.
Your doctor will perform a physical exam and review your medical history as well as ask you some questions, like:
- When did symptoms start?
- Do you ever have productive coughs (those that bring up phlegm)?
- Does anything trigger symptoms, such as exercise, food, pollen, or dust?
- Can you describe the chest pain? Is it an ache? A sharp or shooting pain? Does it come and go?
- What, if anything, makes symptoms subside?
- Are the symptoms worse when you lie down?
- Do you, or have you had, any other symptoms?
Your doctor may also use more tests to help them make a diagnosis, such as:
- Spirometry. This test measures how much you inhale, exhale, and how quickly you exhale.
- Chest X-ray. This imaging test can check for lung cancer, collapsed lung, or other lung problems.
- Blood tests. Your doctor will look for certain enzymes and proteins to check heart health.
- Bacterial sputum culture. This quick test helps your doctor determine what type of bacterium is causing your symptoms to prescribe the right treatment.
- Laryngoscopy. A thin, flexible scope with a tiny camera is inserted into your throat for a close-up look.
Your treatment options will depend on the underlying cause of your dry cough and chest pain:
Your doctor may recommend using an inhaler depending on your needs. A fast-acting bronchodilator can quickly expand the airways. A longer-acting corticosteroid can relieve inflammation.
The bronchodilator may be used on an as-needed basis, like to relieve an asthma attack. The corticosteroid may be a daily treatment.
Lifestyle adjustments can also help manage GERD in the long term.
If you’re looking for quick heartburn relief, try these 10 home remedies.
A dry cough from a lingering respiratory infection like the common cold may be managed with some home remedies. Consider trying:
- throat lozenges
- a vaporizer to increase moisture in your bedroom
- a hot and steamy shower to help moisten the airways
- increased fluid intake, like hot tea with honey
You can also use medications containing dextromethorphan (Robitussin) to suppress the cough reflex. Be sure to follow label instructions.
Reducing your exposure to environmental irritants is usually enough to stop the coughing and chest discomfort.
Stay indoors when possible to avoid freezing temps and days with a high pollen count or consider taking an allergy medicine.
If you have repeated bouts of dry coughs, chest pain or tightness, and other allergic responses, see your healthcare provider. They may refer you to an allergist who can help pinpoint the source of your symptoms and help you get relief.
Treatment for a collapsed lung will depend on the severity and cause of it as well as whether you’ve had one before.
Many minor cases may heal on their own. Your doctor may use a “watch and wait” approach to make sure the lung is healing as it should. They’ll monitor your lung’s recovery with frequent X-rays.
For moderate to severe and repeat cases, more invasive treatments may be necessary. This can include removing excess air by inserting a chest tube, sewing together leaks in the lung, or removing the affected part of the lung.
Heart or lung disease
If your chest pains are related to heart or lung disease, your doctor may recommend medications as well as other therapies or procedures.
You can prevent many instances of dry cough and chest pain by making some lifestyle changes:
- Stay indoors with the windows closed as much as possible when air quality is poor and pollen counts are high.
- Quit smoking. Download a free app to help you quit.
- If lying flat brings on chest pain, sleep with your head and upper body on an incline. Use an extra pillow or a mattress that can be set to preferred angles.
- Follow a diet that doesn’t cause excess stomach acid production. Here are 11 foods to avoid.
Not all chest pain means a heart attack or something serious.
However, seek emergency medical attention if you experience sudden and severe chest pain, with or without coughing. It could be a sign of a heart attack or other cardiac event that needs prompt treatment.
Also get immediate medical attention if you experience a dry cough with or without chest pain and any of the following symptoms:
- shortness of breath or wheezing
- coughing up blood or bloody phlegm
- unexplained weakness or fatigue
- unexplained sweating
- leg swelling
A dry cough and chest pain can arise from something mild like the common cold to an underlying condition.
Most causes of dry cough and chest pain are treatable or will go away on their own. But if a dry cough lasts for more than a week or so, or worsens during that time, see your doctor. Get emergency medical attention for severe, sudden, and unexplained chest pain.
Rather than wonder if you’ve picked up an allergy or if it’s something more serious, see a healthcare provider to get answers and relief.