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What Is a Dry Cough and Should I Be Worried About It?

Medically reviewed by Jobelle Ann Dela Cruz Bigalbal, MD · General Practitioner

Written by Ruby Anne Hornillos · Updated Aug 30, 2022

What Is a Dry Cough and Should I Be Worried About It?

A cough is the body’s natural way of getting rid of lung irritants. But when is a dry cough dangerous?

To best answer this question, it helps to know exactly what a cough means. 

A cough commonly occurs with other symptoms, such as colds and headaches, whenever we experience the flu (influenza).

Different types of cough can help you tell whether or not it’s caused by an underlying condition that needs to be treated before it leads to something more serious. 

A cough typically starts with a foreign or harmful object invading the body. When this causes irritation to the throat or airway, the brain sends a signal to the muscles in your chest and abdomen to contract, causing a cough.

Coughing helps defend the body against infections caused by irritants like smoke, allergens, mold, and pollen. 

The two main types of coughs can be classified as productive (wet) cough and non-productive (dry) cough.  

Wet Cough (Productive Cough)

A wet cough, also known as a productive cough, usually involves phlegm. It typically occurs after a case of the common cold or the flu. 

You may be able to distinguish a wet cough when you feel the urge to clear your throat. 

It feels that way because a wet cough is caused by excess mucus dripping to the back of the throat. This is known as “postnasal drip.” Wet coughs are usually accompanied by a runny or stuffy nose. 

Dry, Tickling Cough (Non-Productive Cough)

A dry cough is also referred to as a “non-productive cough” because it doesn’t produce any mucus. A dry cough is most common when your body simply wants to quickly get rid of an irritant that has entered your body. 

When you have a dry cough, it often feels like there’s a tickle or an itch in your throat, which is triggering your coughing reflex. A dry cough is the result of irritation in the airway, not an excess build-up of mucus, which is why it’s referred to as “dry.” 

You can usually differentiate a dry cough between a wet cough by the absence or presence of mucus. However, dry coughs sound hoarse or come off like a bark. Dry coughs can also be “unsatisfying” because of how they don’t really produce any mucus for an individual to cough up.

Although dry coughs are usually nothing to worry about, a persistent dry cough can signal an underlying condition in need of treatment. Otherwise, a mild dry cough can often be treated with over-the-counter medications. 

Read more to learn more about the dry cough, and the answers to “When is a dry cough dangerous?”

What Causes A Dry Cough?

Just like a sneeze or a sudden fever, a cough is often a sign that your body is trying to expel harmful substances out of your system. People usually see their doctor in search of a treatment for a cough. Since it’s so common, a dry cough isn’t usually a cause for worry. More often than not, a dry cough is simply a symptom of another condition. Other times, a dry cough can be a side effect of medications, such as ACE inhibitors or anti-hypertensive drugs.

It’s important to note that, given today’s circumstances, a dry cough can be one of the symptoms of the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19). But this should not be a cause for panic, as there are other symptoms that accompany COVID-19. Just because you’ve been dealing with a dry cough doesn’t necessarily mean you’re infected with the virus. 

If you’re a health care professional, someone who has recently traveled or someone who’s located in an area with local transmission of COVID-19, you’re a person at risk of the virus. If you’re developing a dry cough, a COVID-19 self-checker is available on the Center for Disease Control and Prevention website. 

There are also other, relatively mild conditions, which can cause a dry cough namely:

1. Asthma 

According to the World Health Organization, 235 million people all over the globe deal with asthma.

An asthma attack happens when airways become inflamed, hindering the passage of air.  An asthma-related cough can be productive or non-productive.

However, for most people with asthma, coughs are usually dry or non-productive.

2. Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) 

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) is a more serious, chronic, and longer-lasting form of acid reflux.

GERD happens when the contents of your stomach flow back upwards to the esophagus, causing a burning sensation in the chest. The stomach acid usually irritates the throat, triggering a dry coughing fit.

3. Viral Infection

A common cold or the flu usually comes with a lot of dreadful upper-respiratory-tract symptoms like a sore throat, or a stuffy nose. A dry cough can generally come after most of your symptoms have improved because of the sensitivity of the airways right after the infection. 

What Can I Do to Alleviate My Dry Cough?

Usually, a dry cough does not require serious medication and typically subsides once the airways become less irritated. If your dry cough is causing discomfort, there are a few easy ways you can get instant relief. 

  1. Throat lozenges are available in pharmacies and convenience stores. Most lozenges in the market come in many flavors and sensations, like cooling or warming effects. 
  2. Drinking any warm beverage like tea or a glass of warm water with honey helps to soothe any irritation in the throat by coating the airways. This can make the coughing occur less, and is a tasty and natural alternative to medicines. Honey is also perfect for treating dry coughs in kids, but keep in mind to never give honey to children under the age of one.
  3. Try drinking tea with ginger, or infusing your own ginger tea by steeping a ginger root in hot water for a few minutes. Sweeten the ginger tea with honey to double up on the anti-inflammatory and soothing benefits.
  4. Something as simple as a salt gargle can do wonders for an irritated throat and dry cough. Dissolve 1 teaspoon of salt in a glass of warm water and gargle a few times a day. This is basically a homemade saline solution, which is a gentle, antibacterial remedy for several conditions.
  5. Investing in an air purifier can help cleanse the air in your home of any dust, smoke, or irritants. You’ll be surprised at how much clean air can affect your overall health.

A dry cough can simply be your body reacting to irritants that you’ve inhaled in the air, which are usually harmless. However, if a dry cough is persistent and is accompanied by unusual symptoms like body weakness, loss of appetite or a fever then it’s always wise to consult a medical professional.

Learn more about Respiratory Health here.


Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Medically reviewed by

Jobelle Ann Dela Cruz Bigalbal, MD

General Practitioner

Written by Ruby Anne Hornillos · Updated Aug 30, 2022

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