Common causes for a dry cough

You know that scratchy, tickly feeling in the back of your throat that makes you cough? The kind of cough that makes your boss think they’ve hired a horse, or your kids confuse you with the dog next door? That’s the kind of cough we call a dry cough. And it’s called a dry cough because it generally doesn’t produce mucus. When a cough does produce mucus, it’s called a wet or productive chesty cough because mucus is, well, wet.

So what causes this raspy, irritating dry cough? Well, a cough is a normal, protective reflex that your body uses to help keep your airways clear from things that could irritate them, such as inhaled food or second-hand cigarette smoke. But dry coughs can also be associated with a range of different conditions. Below, we’ll briefly discuss some of the common causes of an annoying dry cough.

Postnasal drip

As the entrance to your airways, your nose is pretty important. It produces a mucus that helps to filter the air as it passes down into your windpipe and lungs. Allergies, infections, and particles in the air like dust and smoke can all irritate your nasal passages (called sinuses), causing them to ramp up this mucus secretion. This extra mucus is more watery and tends to drip down the back of your throat, triggering your cough reflex. This is called a postnasal drip or upper airway cough syndrome and is a common cause of dry coughs.

Upper respiratory tract infection

Viral infections such as the common cold and flu (upper respiratory tract infections), usually cause a range of symptoms – this often includes a dry cough. This cough usually develops a little later in the course of infection than some of the other symptoms, such as a sore throat and sneezing, and may persist after these earlier symptoms have eased. When you have an upper respiratory tract infection, a dry cough can be caused by excess postnasal drip secretions that trigger your cough reflex. It may also result from the nerves that trigger your cough reflex being extra sensitive because of inflammation in your airways caused by the infection.

Other factors

If that’s not enough, here are a couple of other causes of dry cough!

  • Medications: some medications that are used to treat high blood pressure can cause a dry cough
  • Environmental factors: dry coughs may be triggered when your airways are exposed to irritants in the air such as dust or smoke, or even by cold air

Dry cough remedies

So when your dry cough has interrupted your zoom call for the zillionth time, what are your options? First of all, it’s important to take care of any condition that might be causing the cough. For example, if you think postnasal drip or environmental irritants might be the problem, talk to your doctor about the most suitable way to manage your condition.

In the meantime, to help soothe your dry cough, make sure you drink adequate fluids to help you stay hydrated and keep your airways comfortable. You could also consider hot drinks, syrups, or lozenges containing demulcents – these are products that form a protective layer over your throat to help take away that tickly, scratchy feeling that makes you cough.

Dry cough treatment options

But what about when you really want to help switch off your dry cough? You can find medications called cough suppressants (or antitussives) available over-the-counter to help lessen how much you cough. They work by suppressing the cough reflex, providing relief for dry coughs.

Look no further than the DURO-TUSS® range for dry coughs to help switch off your cough and get you back to normal.

These medicines may not be right for you. Read the label before purchase. Follow the directions for use. If symptoms persist, talk to your health professional.

When to see a medical professional

Remember that anyone with cold and flu symptoms should get tested and isolate. For the most up-to-date information, please visit https://www.health.nsw.gov.au/Infectious/covid-19/Pages/default.aspx

If you’ve had a cold and flu, your dry cough should clear up on its own in a few weeks. It is important to see your doctor if you have any concerns about your cough or any other symptoms, or if:

  • Your cough gets worse or lasts longer than 10 days 
  • You have a fever, difficulty breathing, or chest pains
  • You cough up blood, or green or yellow mucus
  • Your coughing causes vomiting

Dry cough FAQs

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Dry coughs can be a response to irritants such as cigarette smoke or allergies but can also be a sign of conditions such as the common cold or post-nasal drip.

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Consider taking a cough medicine that contains a cough suppressant such as pholcodine to reduce your cough reflex.

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Dry coughs caused by cold and flu typically resolve on their own in a few weeks. However, you should see your doctor if your cough lasts longer than 10 days or you have any other concerns.

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Because a dry cough can be associated with other medical conditions, it’s important to speak with your doctor if you have any concerns about your cough or any other symptoms or if it persists.

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Cough suppressants are recommended for dry coughs. Medicines that contain mucolytics or expectorants, which help to clear mucus from the chest, are not recommended for dry coughs.

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A common cause of night-time coughing is postnasal drip. Lying flat on your back causes mucus to pool in the back of your throat. Try propping your head up with an extra pillow to help reduce your dry cough at night and speak to your health professional about a suitable treatment to help relieve your nasal symptoms.