A cough is a sign that something is irritating your upper respiratory system, like mucus, phlegm, or inflammation. It’s a natural defense mechanism for your lungs, throat, or nasal passages.
Coughs are typically divided into two types:
Both types of coughs happen in children and adults.
A dry cough can happen for several reasons, including allergies, asthma, postnasal drip, even medications. Several treatment options can help ease and end a dry cough, from home remedies to prescription medicines.
In this article, we’ll look at how to treat the causes of a dry cough with medication and home remedies.
Dry coughs can be uncomfortable. However, there are a variety of over-the-counter (OTC) medications available at your local drugstore that may help ease your cough.
Decongestants are OTC medications that treat congestion in the nose and sinuses.
When you contract a virus, such as the common cold, the lining of your nose swells up and blocks the passage of air. Decongestants work by constricting blood vessels in the nose, which reduces blood flow to the swollen tissue.
As the swelling subsides, it becomes easier to breathe. Decongestants may also help reduce postnasal drip.
Several types of decongestants are available, but the most common brand name decongestants in the United States include:
It’s recommended that children under age 12 don’t take decongestants. The risk of dangerous side effects is too high. Decongestants should never be given to children under 2 because of serious complications such as seizures and rapid heart rate.
If you’re looking for a cold medicine for your child, never give them one meant for adults. Instead, choose an OTC medication specifically formulated for children, and follow the manufacturer’s instructions or talk with your doctor.
Cough suppressants and expectorants
Although your local drugstore probably carries a wide variety of brands and formulations, there are really only two types of OTC cough medicines to choose from: cough suppressants and cough expectorants.
Cough suppressants (antitussives) quiet your cough by blocking your cough reflex. This is helpful for dry coughs that are painful or that keep you up at night. The primary OTC cough suppressant medicine is dextromethorphan, also known in the United States as:
- Theraflu Thin Strips Cough
Expectorants are better for wet coughs. They work by thinning the mucus in your airway so you can more easily cough it up. The most commonly used OTC expectorant is guaifenesin. In the United States, it’s in brands like:
Some natural expectorants like hydration, moisture, and honey may also help to loosen mucus so you can cough it up.
If OTC treatments don’t help relieve your cough, contact your doctor. Depending on the underlying condition that’s causing the cough, a doctor may prescribe:
- oral antihistamine: for seasonal allergies
- inhaled corticosteroids: for asthma
- antibiotics: for infections
- acid blockers: for acid reflux
Some of these home remedies have not been extensively studied or proven effective. Instead, most of the support is anecdotal. Not all of these home remedies for a dry cough are appropriate for babies and children.
Menthol cough drops
Menthol cough drops are available at most drugstores. These medicated lozenges contain compounds from the mint family. They have a powerful cooling effect that soothes irritated tissue and relaxes the cough reflex.
A humidifier is a machine that adds moisture to the air. Dry air, which is common in heated homes, can aggravate inflamed throat tissue.
Using a humidifier in your bedroom at night can help loosen mucus, ease breathing, and make you more comfortable while you’re sleeping.
For young children, use a cool-mist vaporizer. Humidifiers that use heating elements and hot water could burn a child if they tip it over.
Soup, broth, tea, or another hot beverage
Warm liquids like soup and tea help add moisture while providing immediate relief for sore and scratchy throats.
Warm liquids also help keep you hydrated, which is essential to the healing process.
Honey has anti-inflammatory properties that can help reduce inflammation in the throat. It can also help break down mucus and soothe sore throats.
Try adding honey to a cup of warm tea or warm water with lemon. Or just eat a spoonful every time the coughing returns.
A 2018 review found that honey was as effective as diphenhydramine, which is used in Benadryl, for children with a cough. However, it was not as effective as dextromethorphan, which is used in Delsym and Robitussin.
Babies under the age of 12 months should not be given honey due to the risk of botulism. For older children, honey can be used to soothe a dry cough.
Salt water gargle
Salt water soothes inflamed tissue and promotes healing. The salt can also kill bacteria in the mouth and throat.
To make a salt water gargle, mix 1/2 teaspoon of salt into an 8-ounce glass of warm water and take a sip. Tilt your head back and gargle gently for 30 seconds, then spit. Never swallow salt water.
Many herbs have anti-inflammatory properties that may help reduce the swelling in your throat.
Herbs are also chock-full of antioxidants, which can help boost your immune system.
Herbs used to treat dry cough include:
You can add herbs to your diet by brewing them into teas or adding them to your favorite recipes. You can also look for supplements and extracts at your local health food store.
Drink plenty of fluids
If you have a dry cough, then fluids are your friend. Staying hydrated helps ensure your throat stays moist so it can heal properly. Aim to drink at least 8 glasses of water per day, but more is better.
Room temperature water may help ease a cough
Like warm or hot water from drinks, steam from hot water can help moisturize the dry and irritated tissues in your nasal passages and throat. It can also ease irritation in sore throats and reduce coughs.
Heat water in the microwave, a kettle, or on the stove. Then, pour the water into a bowl. Place a towel over your head and the bowl, and slowly inhale the warm, moist air for 2 to 3 minutes.
Don’t breathe in steam directly over a pot of boiling water. You can severely burn your skin.
You can also take a hot shower and breathe in the steam while you bathe. If you don’t need the shower but want the steam, close the door to the bathroom, turn on a hot shower, and let the steam build. Take in deep breaths of the moist air.
Bromelain may also help break down mucus. You can get a small dose of bromelain in a glass of pineapple juice, but many people prefer to take supplements, which have a much higher concentration.
Vitamins are organic compounds that your body needs to function properly. Different vitamins serve different purposes. For example, vitamin C plays an important role in your immune system.
To get the most bang for your buck, look for a multivitamin at your local drugstore.
Probiotics are healthy bacteria that can improve your gut bacteria. They don’t help relieve a cough directly, but a healthy balance of bacteria keeps your gut healthy, and strengthens your immune system so you can fight off infection.
Probiotics are found in some fermented foods, like miso, sauerkraut, and kimchi. Probiotics are also available as a dietary supplement at most drugstores, or you can find them in yogurts containing live active cultures. Just look for the ingredient lactobacillus.
You might think that food only irritates your stomach or gastrointestinal system, but some foods could be responsible for a dry cough.
A cough can be a sign of food allergies. If you experience a dry cough after eating a certain type of food, avoid the food for a while to see if the coughing stops.
Dry coughs may also be the result of a reaction to histamines in foods. Histamine-rich foods include:
- dried fruit
- smoked meat
- aged cheese
- pickled foods
Acid reflux can cause a dry cough, too. High-fat foods and acidic foods, like tomatoes, are frequently responsible for acid reflux. Chocolate, caffeine, and spicy foods can also worsen acid reflux symptoms like a dry cough.
Avoid irritants in the environment
When irritants enter your respiratory system, they can trigger the cough reflex and slow down the healing process. Common irritants include:
- pet hair and dander
- cleaning products
Consider taking these measures to help make your environment less triggering:
- Use an air purifier. Air purifiers help clear the air of allergens and irritants like dust, pollen, and pet dander.
- Cool-mist humidifier. Dry air outside or in your home can irritate a cough. Heated air is especially irritating for coughs. A humidifier adds moisture back into the air, which can help keep your nasal passageways lubricated.
- Eliminate smoke. Smoke from cigarettes, vaping pens, or marijuana can irritate your throat and worsen a dry cough.
More often than not, a dry cough is the result of a virus. It’s not uncommon for a dry cough to continue for weeks after a cold or flu.
Compounding cold and flu season is the fact that home heating systems can cause dry air. Breathing dry air can irritate your throat and prolong healing time.
Other common causes of a dry cough include:
- Asthma. Asthma causes the airways to swell and narrow. It can cause a dry cough along with symptoms like trouble breathing and wheezing.
- Gastroesophageal reflux disorder (GERD). This is a type of chronic acid reflux that can cause damage to the esophagus. Irritation in the esophagus can trigger the cough reflex.
- Postnasal drip. This is a symptom of the common cold and seasonal allergies. Mucus drips down the back of the throat, activating the cough reflex.
- Allergies and irritants in the air. These can trigger the cough reflex, prolong healing time, or cause an overproduction of mucus. Common irritants include smoke, pollen, and pet hair.
- ACE inhibitor medications. Drugs, such as enalapril (Vasotec) and lisinopril (Prinivil, Zestril), are prescription medications that cause chronic dry cough in about 20 percent of people.
- Whooping cough. Also called pertussis, this is a contagious respiratory infection that causes a characteristic dry cough with a “whoop” sound as you gasp for air.
If your cough doesn’t go away after a few weeks, contact your doctor. They can identify the underlying cause and begin treatment to help you find relief.
COVID-19 and dry cough
A dry cough is one of the most common symptoms of COVID-19. Other common symptoms include:
- sore or scratchy throat
- shortness of breath
- Stay home.
- Separate yourself from all family members and pets living in the house.
- Cover your coughs and sneezes.
- Wear a KN95 or N95 mask if physical distancing isn’t possible.
- Wash your hands regularly.
- Stay in touch with your doctor.
- Call ahead before seeking medical attention.
- Avoid sharing household items with other people in the house.
- Disinfect common surfaces.
It’s also important to monitor your symptoms while at home. Seek emergency medical attention if you experience any of the following symptoms:
- trouble breathing or talking
- heaviness or tightness in the chest
- a rapid heartbeat
- bluish lips
A persistent dry cough is rarely a sign of a medical emergency. But it’s important to see a healthcare professional right away if you have:
- a fever
- chest pain
- trouble breathing or shortness of breath
Otherwise, make an appointment with your doctor if your cough lasts longer than 2 months or if any of these symptoms begin:
- a productive cough with phlegm and mucus
- a cough with blood-tinged or pinkish sputum
- coughing that keeps you up at night
- coughing with chest pain or pressure
- coughing that causes hoarseness
The Healthline FindCare tool can provide options in your area if you don’t already have a doctor.
A dry, hacking cough can be very annoying, but it usually isn’t a sign of anything serious. Most often, a dry cough is the result of a cold or flu virus, although it can also be caused by other conditions such as asthma, GERD, or allergies. Rarely, a chronic, dry cough may be a sign of a more serious health condition.
Most dry coughs can be treated at home with OTC medications like cough suppressants and throat lozenges. There are also several home remedies that help promote healing, such as adding moisture to the air with a humidifier, gargling with salt water, and drinking plenty of fluids.
Contact your doctor if your dry cough persists for longer than 2 months, gets worse with time, or is accompanied by other concerning symptoms.