Dry Cough

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What is a dry cough?

A dry cough refers to a cough that does not produce mucus (also known as phlegm or sputum). A cough is your body’s defensive reflex that functions to keep your airways clear of irritating or obstructing substances so you can breathe effectively. Over time, a dry cough can often become a productive cough as the lungs produce more sputum.

A dry cough is a symptom of a wide variety of mild to serious diseases, disorders and conditions. A dry cough can result from infection, inflammation, trauma, malignancy, airway obstruction, and other abnormal processes.

You may have a dry, hacking cough after inhaling a mild irritant, such as dust, smoke or powder. A dry cough may also be the result of a disorder, such as an allergy, or an infectious disease, such as viral laryngitis. A dry cough can accompany serious and potentially life-threatening conditions including congestive heart failure and lung cancer.

Depending on the cause, a dry cough can begin suddenly and disappear quickly, such as after inhaling secondhand smoke. An acute dry cough that comes on suddenly and lasts up to two to three weeks is usually associated with a cold; whereas, a chronic dry cough over a long period of time (lasting more than eight weeks) may be caused by smoking or asthma.

A dry cough can be a sign of a serious or life-threatening disorder. If you have difficulty breathing, chest pain, rapid heartbeat, or swollen legs or ankles, seek immediate medical care (call 911). If your dry cough is persistent or causes you concern, see your doctor.

What other symptoms might occur with a dry cough?

A dry cough often occurs in conjunction with other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Other symptoms include fever, shortness of breath, and chest pain. Symptoms including sounds the lungs make while you are breathing, changes in blood pressure, and low blood oxygen levels may only be evident using certain instruments in the doctor’s office or hospital.

Common symptoms that may occur along with a dry cough

Dry cough may occur with other symptoms including:

Other symptoms that may occur along with a dry cough

Dry cough may accompany other less common symptoms including:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, a dry cough may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition that should be evaluated immediately in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, are exhibiting any of these life-threatening symptoms:

What causes a dry cough?

A dry cough has many causes, the most common of which is an upper airway infection that follows a cold. A cold can also lead to a productive cough, which is a cough that produces mucus (phlegm). A persistent, dry cough could also be due to whooping cough (pertussis) or a sign of a chronic condition, such as emphysema or asthma. Whooping cough is uncommon in infants due to vaccination, but it is surprisingly common in adults because vaccination becomes less effective over time.

Serious and life-threatening conditions include congestive heart failure and lung cancer. Because there are so many different possibilities, some of which are life threatening, it is important to contact your doctor to discuss your symptoms and answer your questions.

Infectious causes of a dry cough

Dry cough is a sign of various viral and bacterial infections including:

  • Common cold (viral respiratory infection)
  • Croup (viral illness that is common in young children)
  • Empyema
  • Legionnaires’ disease (type of bacterial pneumonia)
  • Whooping cough (pertussis)
  • Tuberculosis

Other causes of a dry cough

A persistent cough can be due to causes related to respiratory and digestive systems including:

Medications can cause a dry cough

Certain medications that can cause a dry cough include ACE inhibitors (including captopril) to control high blood pressure.

Questions for diagnosing the cause of a dry cough

To aid in diagnosing the cause of your cough, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will most likely ask you questions related to your symptoms including:

  • How long have you had the cough?
  • Are you coughing up anything (including blood)?
  • Are you breathing through your mouth (instead of your nose)?
  • Is the cough keeping you up at night?
  • Do you have a fever?

What are the potential complications of a dry cough?

A dry cough can be a sign of an infectious or inflammatory process, many of which can be easily treated. Your treatment plan may include self-care measures at home, such as moist air and anti-inflammatory medications. It is important to contact your health care provider when you experience a dry cough without an obvious cause or if your cough is persistent, recurrent, or causes you concern. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, following the treatment plan outlined by your doctor can help lower your risk of potential complications including:

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Dec 3
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Chronic Cough. FamilyDoctor.org from the American Academy of Family Physicians. https://familydoctor.org/condition/chronic-cough/
  2. Cough. MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003072.htm