Dry Cough

1 Dry cough summary

A cough is a body’s natural method to remove foreign bodies from the upper respiratory tract. It may also be a reaction to an irritation in the airways. A cough has distinctive characteristics and is often a symptom of an underlying condition.

It is categorized into two – dry and wet. The two types of coughs are associated with different conditions. A dry cough is non-productive as it does not produce phlegm or mucus.

Wet coughs or chesty coughs are characterized by the production of mucus. Both types of a cough can cause discomfort, particularly if it affects sleep.

A dry cough may be accompanied by a lumpy feeling in the throat, while some others complain of an irritating tickle. A cough is often a natural response to get rid of the lumpy or tickling feeling in the throat.

Both conditions give a nagging feel to a cough and get rid of the irritation. A persistent cough without any mucus can make the person feel exhausted. Moreover, the continuous cough may irritate the airways further.

The common symptoms of a dry cough are: 

  • Tickle in the air passages
  • Absence of mucus on coughing
  • Clear chest without wheezing or congestion
  • Dry sound of a cough
  • Difficulty in sleeping due to a persistent cough

While most symptoms can be treated with home remedies, there are some symptoms which warrant a visit to the physician, including: 

  • Barking sound while coughing
  • Whooping sound while coughing
  • Whistling sound while coughing
  • High fever
  • Headache

A dry cough that lasts for more than 5 days also needs medical attention.

Dry coughs are caused by viral infections, allergies, pollutants, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Some other causes of a dry cough include psychological conditions, anxiety, stress, and side effects of certain medications.

Persistent dry coughs are caused by asthma, heart disease, lung problems, cancer, whooping cough and tuberculosis. A dry hacking cough is often seen with viral infections of the nose and throat.

The infection gives a lumpy feeling in the throat, which the person tries to get rid of by coughing. Laryngitis is associated with barking sound in a cough.

A whooping cough is seen in children and is of rare occurrence. A cough is continuous for some time after which the patient takes a deep breath with a characteristic sound.

The type of cough and the associated symptoms are the main diagnostic features. During physical examination, the doctor will look out for sound in the chest to check for congestion. Examination of the throat will reveal infection or inflammation.

If the reason is not confirmed, other tests and investigations may be recommended. A chest x-ray is a common test used to identify the underlying cause of a cough. Treatment depends on the underlying cause of a cough.

For symptomatic relief of a cough, home remedies and over-the-counter medications are useful. Airways can be moistened by steam inhalation. A cough caused by infections are treated with antibiotics.

Antihistamines are also suggested to relieve the accompanying symptoms. Bronchi can be dilated using a nebulizer. If left treated, a dry cough may lead to complications. A dry cough can be prevented in some simple ways.

Types of cough

At times, it seems impossible to point out the type of cough just by its sound, as there are a few differences which give clues as to what’s going on. Below are a few details of what the cough is actually telling you.

Postnasal drip: This can be either a wet cough or a dry cough. In this case the mucus drips down the throat which happens due to allergies or cold. This tickles the nerve endings, resulting in a coughing sensation. This cough gets worse during the night time. If the cause of the cough is allergies, then one would also have itching in the eyes along with constant sneezing. The treatment for postnasal drip is an over-the-counter medicine called antihistamine. However even if after taking the medicine, the cough and the other symptoms do not go away, then it’s best to consult your doctor who can refer you to an allergist for skin testing. One can also try steam which would help to relive the congestion.

Asthma: Individuals suffering from asthma have inflamed airways. This causes difficulty in breathing along with a cough and wheezing. The dry cough in asthma patients usually ends with a rattle or wheeze. At night or while exercising, the symptoms get worse. The individual will also experience other symptoms such as tightness in the chest, fatigue even after not doing any heavy-duty work, and irregular breathing. In cases of asthma the doctor would usually recommend a lung functioning test known as as spirometry. After the test, the doctor may suggest certain medications to relieve symptoms.

GERD: This is one of the most common causes of individuals developing chronic dry cough. GERD happens when the acid from the stomach backs up into the esophagus. While you’re eating or lying down, dry cough caused by GERD gets worse. For those suffering from GERD, the doctor may suggest an X-ray of the upper GI tract or an endoscopy. It isn’t a dangerous sign, since it can be treatment with certain over the counter medications prescribed by the doctor. These medicines reduce the acid production in the stomach.

COPD: This is a type of dry chronic hacking cough. It produces a lot of mucus, mostly in the mornings. It is short for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The main cause for COPD is smoking. One may feel short of breath while conducting any physical or strenuous activity. Wheezing and fatigue are other symptoms of COPD. For diagnosis of COPD, the doctor may recommend lung function tests or an x-ray. This illness can be treated with certain over-the-counter medications. It is also essential for the individual to stop smoking.

Cough caused due to medications: Intake of certain drugs such as ACE inhibitors which are commonly prescribed to patients suffering from high blood pressure can also cause dry cough. The cough starts a few weeks or day after one has started taking the medications. You may check with your doctor if the cough is mild and the cause is medications. The doctor may ask you to switch to a different medicine of ACE inhibitor. However, if the cough gets severe then the doctor may completely switch to another medicine.

Pneumonia: In pneumonia, the patient initially suffers from dry cough which eventually turns into wet cough with yellow, green or red mucus. Apart from cough, the individual has other symptoms such as high fever, chills, breathing troubles, and may also experience pain while taking each breath or while coughing. Usually the doctor would come to the conclusion of pneumonia by conducting a physical examination and checking the sound of your chest. Further blood tests or x-rays would be conducted to confirm if it’s caused by virus or bacteria. The treatment would be certain antibiotics along with lots of rest.

Whooping cough: Also called pertussis, whooping cough is a hacking cough that ends with the sound of whooping. The individual would also experience other symptoms such as runny or stuffy nose, sudden fever, and itchy and watery eyes. If untreated, the cough could lead to vomiting or bloody coughs. Whooping cough is diagnosed by conducting certain blood tests and x-rays. The doctor would suggest certain antibiotics to get this cough treated.

2 Causes

There are multiple causes for a dry cough, the most common being an infection of the upper airway. The persistent form of a dry cough can be caused by a whooping cough. It may also be a symptom of a chronic disease like asthma or emphysema.

A whooping cough is rare among kids due to vaccination. A dry cough may also be a symptom of a serious or potentially life-threatening condition like congestive heart failure.

The most common causes of a dry cough

Viral infections: Common cold and flu are common viral infections that are characterized by coughs. The symptom may be seen at the onset of infection or at the end of the condition. A cough may persist even after other symptoms of the condition are resolved.

Allergies: Many types of allergies causes irritation of the throat, leading to a cough. Allergy to pet dander, allergic rhinitis, and hay fever may all cause a dry cough, without the production of sputum.

Air pollutants: This is yet another common cause, wherein the particulate matter irritates the throat and causes a cough. It also happens with passive smoking, when a non-smoker is exposed to smoke.

GERD: Acid reflux or GERD is a common cause of a dry cough. This happens when small amounts of the stomach acid enter the upper respiratory tract when it moves upwards into the food pipe during reflux. The acid content causes inflammation of the tract, leading to a cough.

A dry cough may also be seen as a side effect of certain medications. Medicines used in the treatment of hypertension can cause a dry cough. A psychological condition called psychogenic cough is characterized by a cough that is a mannerism or habit for a person.

There are no underlying physical conditions that cause a cough. In most cases, the person is ignorant of the fact that he/she is coughing during a conversation. Coughing is usually absent during sleep.

Stress may trigger a cough in many people. This usually results from shallow breathing caused by anxiety or stress. Any uncomfortable situation may trigger this nervous cough in people who have a high risk of being anxious.

In some cases, the cough may persist for more than three weeks and is known as a persistent dry cough.

This type of a dry cough often results from conditions like:

Asthma: This is characterized by inflammation and narrowing of airways. A dry cough is usually accompanied by sneezing, shortness of breath, wheezing, and tightness in the chest.

Cardiac conditions: Many cardiac problems may lead to heart failure and buildup of fluid in the lungs. These conditions may thus lead to a persistent cough, particularly in the night.

Lung problems: Bronchiectasis is a condition characterized by abnormal widening of airways that lead to a persistent cough. Pneumonia is a lung condition that initially causes a dry cough and this may later change to a productive cough.

Lung cancer is also a cause of persistent dry cough, particularly in heavy smokers. A cough may gradually worsen and may be accompanied by unexplained weight loss, fatigue, and chest pain.

A whooping cough: This is an infectious bacterial disease caused by the bacteria Bordetella pertussis. Also known as pertussis, this leads to bouts of coughing followed by deep inhalation with a characteristic whooping sound.

Tuberculosis: This is yet another bacterial infection that leads to a dry cough in the earlier stages.

3 Diagnosis and treatment

Associated symptoms and physical examination are diagnostic features of a dry cough. Information on duration of a cough, accompanying symptoms, activities that worsen or improve a cough, and the time of day during which a cough worsens are collected for analysis of the possible cause of a dry cough.

Responses to certain queries like other medical conditions, the presence of heartburn, any recent infections, exposure to smoke, air pollution and dust are also helpful. The cause of an acute cough is identified on the basis of symptoms, medical history and physical examination of the patient.

Imaging studies like X-rays are useful in identifying the cause in people with a weakened immune system and also patients with abnormal lung sounds. This is particularly true for elderly people in diagnosing the cause of a cough.

Diagnosis of a chronic cough is often based on physical examination and medical history of the patient. Other diagnostic tests and investigations are based on the suspected cause of a cough. Test using pH probe is suggested for people with GERD.

Mucus from the nasal cavity and throat is analyzed for confirming the diagnosis of the underlying condition. It also helps in the identification of the causative organism. Lung conditions like pneumonia are diagnosed based on chest x-ray.

Lung functions tests measures the amount of air inhaled and exhaled and helps to diagnose asthma and other lung conditions. It gives an indication of how well oxygen is delivered to different organs.

Treatment of a cough depends on the underlying condition. Thus in an acute cough, treatment focuses on reducing cough and treating the underlying condition. Over-the-counter and prescription medications are used in providing symptomatic relief for a cough.

Narcotic medications are suggested for a cough that affects sleep. Antibiotics are recommended for controlling bacterial infections that cause an acute cough.

Viral diseases that cause a cough will be treated symptomatically. Hospitalization is required for elderly people, people with weakened immune system, and patients with severe bacterial and viral infections.

A chronic cough caused by smoking, irritants, and allergies is controlled by preventing exposure to the causative substance. Treatment for lung diseases is usually multiple and long-term to alleviate the symptoms.

Improvement of the condition is often gradual and may take several days to weeks to note the same. Stopping the medication or reducing the dose of medication that causes a cough is one of the most important steps in reducing cough caused by medications.

Controlling GERD using medications help to alleviate a chronic cough. In addition to medications, it may also need dietary changes.

A cough can be avoided by simple preventive measures:

Quitting smoking: Smoking is one of the most common causes of a chronic cough. Quitting smoking reduces the risk of common cold and flu, two other causes of a cough.

Dietary changes: A healthy diet rich in flavonoids and fiber reduces the chances of developing a chronic cough.

Keeping away from people who have contagious diseases reduces the risk of conditions that cause a cough. Keeping existing medical conditions like asthma and GERD under control helps to prevent chances of a cough. Once managed, cough reduces considerably.

4 Home remedies to treat dry cough

Honey: Honey is one of the most productive treatments for dry cough even when considering some OTC medicine. Honey has analgesic properties. It does an incredible job of soothing and coating the irritated mucous membranes. It is rich with antibacterial properties which help shorten the length of the cough if it is due to bacterial illness.

You can take one to three tablespoons of honey daily before going to bed. For children, the dosing can be adjusted as needed. You can also take honey mixed with warm water or milk.

Salt water gargle: This is a very popular remedy for sore throats. Salt water removes mucus, and relieves the discomfort caused by cough. Outside the cells of the mucous membranes, when the concentration of salt is higher to balance out everything, the water flows out of the cells.

Therefore, swelling goes down and discomfort is reduced when this water leaves the cells. All you need is one teaspoon of salt with a glass of warm water. Mix it thoroughly and gargle for 15 seconds. Spit it out and repeat the same process with the remaining water.

Steaming: Steam is one of the most popular home remedies to ease a cough, congestion, and sore throat. The steam helps loosen the mucous and phlegm immediately. Apart from plain steam, you can add essential oils which can help provide more healing benefits.

Ginger: Another popular cure for cough, ginger has anti-inflammatory properties which provide comfort to the irritation caused by a sore throat. In a cup of water add freshly cut ginger pieces. Bring it to boil and drink it once it cools down. Try this method for at least three days and you should see some relief from non-stop coughing and congestion.

Turmeric: An age-old treatment for many conditions, turmeric has good therapeutic power. Turmeric is effective in treating viral infections, mostly cold and cough. Turmeric has a high concentration of curcumin which has powerful anti-inflammatory effects. It is also a source of antioxidants.

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