A persistent cough that doesn’t produce mucus can be a sign of certain conditions.
Our lungs are in constant contact with the outside world, and dust, germs, pollen, and other contaminants from the environment can easily enter, causing illness or irritation. However, such substances are often a reflex to protect the body from irritants or pathogens that can cause problems for the body, which can trigger cough.
Dry and Productive Cough
If you cough and expel mucus or sputum, it’s called a productive or wet cough. If nothing happens, it is called a dry cough.
St. Dr Jude Medical Center, a pulmonologist. “Cough is a reflex that can be normal but can also indicate a disease process,” says Julie Lyou.
Dry Cough Causes
Common causes of dry cough include:
- Postnasal drops: Postnasal drip occurs when an infection in the sinuses causes mucus to drip down the back of the nose and throat. Sometimes this can cause a dry cough. A pulmonologist, Dr. “Anything that irritates the sinuses, nose and lungs” can lead to a dry cough, says Ron Balkissoon.
- Asthma: In people with asthma, “by definition, the airways are hyper-reactive and hyper-sensitive,” says Balkissoon, which is affected by pollen or other airborne particles.
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease: Also known as GERD, the contents of the stomach cross the floor of the esophagus, causing a burning sensation in the chest. This is usually an unproductive cough.
- Medicines: Some medications, such as blood pressure medications, can cause a dry cough in some people.
- To smoke: Inhaling anything into the lungs can trigger a dry cough. Smoking is the primary cause of chronic dry cough.
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: COPD is the term that includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema (lung disease that causes respiratory failure). Both conditions reduce your ability to breathe and can cause a dry cough.
- Food allergies: Sometimes certain foods can trigger a cough and this may indicate a food allergy. You may be allergic if you cough after eating milk, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish or eggs.
- Coronavirus: An early sign that you are infected with coronavirus is a dry cough and a common symptom. Dry cough usually begins within 2 to 14 days after exposure to an infected person.
Dry Cough Treatment
A dry cough, which can often be associated with colds or allergies, resolves on its own within a few days. Medical assistance or any treatment may not be needed.
“Depending on the cause of the cough, treatment may involve diet and lifestyle changes and sometimes require medication,” Lyou said. Medications that suppress the urge to cough, such as lozenges or syrups, can quiet dry cough.
Other changes you can make are:
- Quitting smoking: Cigarettes, including electronic cigarettes, are the most important trigger of dry cough.
- Avoiding allergens: Common allergens are caused by dust, pollen and pets.
- Acid reflux management: If you have frequent heartburn or GERD, you should talk to your doctor to ease your dry cough.
- Limiting foods that can cause acid reflux: Some foods are more likely to trigger heartburn than others. Limit your intake of caffeine, alcohol, spices, tomatoes, dark chocolate, and citrus fruits to reduce these symptoms.
- Try talk therapy: Balkissoon says that for some people with a condition called cough hypersensitivity syndrome, the threshold for triggering the cough reflex is much lower than for most people, taking medications to suppress cough can help, but talk therapy can also help. “Talk therapy can help suppress the urge to cough,” she says, because it teaches you how to correct it with breathing, throat relaxation exercises, diaphragmatic breathing, and other strategies.
- Getting enough water: “The drier the throat, the more likely it is to trigger a dry cough,” says Balkissoon.
When to Talk to Your Doctor
Dry cough is usually not serious, as it can accompany seasonal allergies or colds.
However, Lyou says you should notify your doctor immediately if your cough is associated with:
- Shortness of breath or wheezing
- Choking breath
- Chest pain
- Weight loss
- Coughing up blood
- Cough with green or yellow mucus
- Weakness or fatigue
- Loss of appetite
- Night sweats
- Edema or swelling in the legs or feet
And if your dry cough has lasted eight weeks or more without these symptoms, “Then it’s time to see someone about it,” says Balkissoon.
Chronic dry cough can be a sign of serious illness, including:
- Lung fibrosis, damage to the lungs that normally makes breathing very difficult
- Heart failure
- Lung cancer
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), damage or inflammation of the airways, difficulty breathing.
Dry cough has also been described as a symptom of COVID-19 infection, so if you have any doubts about what is causing your cough, or if you have contacted someone with COVID-19, be sure to contact your doctor for guidance on what to do next.