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Dry Cough

A dry cough, unlike a chesty cough, typically produces very little or no mucus. A dry cough is usually caused by a virus such as a cold or the flu, however, it can sometimes also be caused by allergies, irritants, asthma or even acid reflux. A mild dry cough should clear up by itself within a few weeks without the need for treatment. If you know the cause of your cough it is beneficial to treat this to ease your symptoms. Otherwise, taking a non-prescription cough suppressant can make you feel more comfortable.

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Advice for Dry Cough

What is a Dry Cough & what causes it?

Coughing is a reflex action designed to clear the body's airways from irritants, such as dust or smoke. Fortunately, they are rarely related to anything serious.

A dry cough is typically characterised as producing little to no mucus or phlegm. This type of cough is known as non-productive and is distinctly different from a chesty cough, where mucus or phlegm is produced.

Dry coughs are usually the result of an infection from the cold or flu virus. They can also result from exposure to atmospheric irritants, such as pollution, cigarette smoke or allergens. The most common causes of dry coughs are outlined below:

  • Viral infections, such as the common cold or flu. Dry coughs are more likely to occur towards the end of the infection, and in many cases can linger after all other symptoms have cleared. However, for some, a dry cough can develop in the early stages.
  • Irritants in the atmosphere can cause the back of the throat to become inflamed. A good example of this is when a non-smoker enters a smoky environment, which can cause them to cough.
  • Sufferers of hay fever often find their throats affected by airborne allergens, such as pollen. Allergies to other particles, such as pet hair, can also lead to the same symptoms.
  • Acid reflux has recently been accepted as a trigger for dry coughs. When acid from the stomach travels up to the back of the throat, tiny amounts can enter the upper respiratory tract. This then causes inflammation, which leads to coughing. This is more likely to occur when lying down flat.
  • Certain medications can cause a dry cough as a side effect. Particularly those used to treat high blood pressure.
  • Psychological conditions, where coughing has become habitual. This type of dry cough doesn't relate to any infection or illness, and in many cases, the sufferer isn't even aware they are coughing. This type of cough is often referred to as a psychogenic cough.
  • Anxiety or stress can cause the breathing to become shallow, which can trigger the cough reflex.
  • Asthma flare-ups will cause the airways to become partially blocked and inflamed, which will likely cause a bout of dry coughing.

On rare occasions, a persistent dry cough lasting beyond three weeks can sometimes be the result of a more serious underlying condition, such as heart disease or cancer. In most cases, it will likely be harmless, but if you're worried about a persistent cough and aren't sure of its cause, it is recommended you visit your GP for advice.

What are the symptoms of a Dry Cough?

A dry cough will present as either intermittent or continual bouts of coughing. The coughing itself will produce little to no mucus or phlegm hence its name, dry.

Often dry coughs are the result of viral infections, which bring with them other associated symptoms, such as

  • Congestion
  • Sore throat
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • General aches and pain.

How is a Dry Cough diagnosed?

For the majority of dry cough sufferers, a visit to your GP is unnecessary. However, it is recommended to seek advice should any of the following apply:

  • The cough has persisted for longer than three weeks.
  • The cough seems to be getting worse or has become particularly severe.
  • Your breathing has become affected.
  • You start to cough up blood.
  • You start to experience chest pain.
  • If other unexplained symptoms develop alongside the cough. For example, weight loss, swellings or lumps, or a persistent change in voice.

If after reviewing your symptoms, your GP is still not sure as to what's causing the cough, then further investigation may be required. This will likely include chest X-rays and breathing/allergy tests.

How can I treat a Dry Cough?

Treating a mild short-term cough doesn't usually require treatment. In most instances, a dry cough will clear by itself within three weeks. If there is an obvious cause for the cough, treating the underlying cause will be the best chance for relief. For example, if an asthma flare-up is the cause, ensuring the asthma is controlled through the proper use of medication will help alleviate the cough.

Alternatively, if the common cold is the cause, then it is recommended to rest, keep warm and drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated.

To help relieve the cough itself, there are several dry cough mixtures available without a prescription from most pharmacies. Dry cough formulations are known as cough suppressants. They work by suppressing the body's cough reflex, causing you to cough less and thus providing relief. Cough Suppressants include:

  • Dextromethorphan
  • Simple Linctus
  • Antihistamines are also used in dry cough formulations. They work to reduce the cough reflex as well as to dry up nasal secretions.

These formulations are particularly useful if the cough is being caused by a postnasal drip (mucus running down from the nose to the back of the throat).

Homemade cough remedies are believed to be as effective as the pharmacy equivalent. Popular homemade cough remedies usually contain a mixture of glycerin, honey and lemon. Honey shouldn't be given to babies under one year as it carries the risk of infant botulism.

How do I prevent a Dry Cough?

In a lot of cases, a dry cough is the result of a viral infection, which sadly isn't always possible to prevent. The best form of defence is to ensure your immune system is kept strong and healthy. This can be aided by changes to your lifestyle that promote healthy living.

Lifestyle changes that will help keep your immune system in tiptop condition include

  • Regular exercise.
  • A healthy diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables.
  • Drinking lots of fluids (especially water).
  • Plenty of sleep (approximately between 7-9 hours each night).
  • Avoided anxiety & stress.
  • Cutting down on alcohol intake.
  • Quitting smoking.

If the dry cough is brought on by allergies, try to avoid exposure when possible. Otherwise taking an appropriate antihistamine can help prevent a reaction. If an asthma sufferer, ensuring the condition is well controlled will help prevent flare-ups, which could likely lead to a dry cough.

If you find yourself suffering from either a persistent or recurrent dry cough, it is recommended to visit your GP, who will be able to identify or rule out any underlying cause.

Dry Cough FAQs

  • Most coughs are a response to a cold, flu or allergies. This is normal; everyone will cough occasionally. If your cough is bringing up blood and/or mucus, this is abnormal and you should consult your doctor. Likewise, you should talk to your GP if your cough is causing you severe pain or making you feel fatigued or light-headed.

  • Coughing itself is not a disease – it is an indication that something else is wrong with your body. For this reason, cough medicine will not address the cause of the cough.

  • There are two different categories of cough medication: expectorants and suppressants.

    Expectorants are used to treat a wet cough, which may be due to a condition like bronchitis or pneumonia. The medication helps the cough to remove the excess mucus from the bronchial tree and lungs.

    Suppressants are used to ease a dry non-infectious cough. If there is a chance that your cough is due to another serious condition, you should be wary of using suppressants. This is because coughing is the body’s way of removing substances from the respiratory pathway.

  • Some medications for high blood pressure (ACE inhibitors such as enalapril, lisinopril and perindopril) may cause a chronic cough.

  • You should talk to your GP if you notice that your cough is causing you to expel blood or mucus, to have a fever, or to have difficulty breathing. These symptoms might indicate that you have a more serious problem than a cold or flu. One such condition is a chest infection, which may also cause a rapid heartbeat, wheezing, or disorientation.

    You should also see your GP if your cough lasts for more than three weeks, or does not improve after seven days of medication.

  • When the respiratory system is working normally, the tissue of the lungs is lined with a layer of mucus (or phlegm), which prevents irritants from entering the lungs. These irritants include bacteria, viruses and dust. Coughing is the body’s mechanism of removing the mucus which has trapped irritants. This is why you have an excess of mucus and a chesty cough when you are fighting a cold.

  • It is important to look after yourself. Staying rested will help your immune system to recover, and frequently washing your hands will stop the spread of germs. Another way to help your immune system is to ensure that you are fully hydrated. Water can also help to loosen mucus, and replenish fluids you have lost through your nose and mouth.

    If you are struggling to sleep, try sleeping on a slight incline. This will prevent mucus from reaching your throat, and help with congestion.

    Consider avoiding cigarettes and other forms of smoke. Smoke commonly causes irritation of the lungs.

  • Tickly dry coughs occur due to an irritation of the throat rather than the lungs, which is why no mucus is involved. The irritation may be due to cold or flu infections, or common irritants including dust and smoke. Several allergens can cause a dry cough; if you think you are coughing due to an allergy, try taking antihistamines.

    Other conditions can cause a dry cough as well. One is asthma, which will also cause wheezing. Another is gastric reflux, in which case you will likely also be suffering from heartburn. In either case, you may want to talk to your GP.

    The mechanism of a dry cough can further irritate the airways, and cause a sore throat. So, you should try to soothe your throat as quickly as possible.

  • Along with suppressant cough medicines, consider using lozenges, hard sweets or even ice cubes to ease the irritation in the throat.

    Steam from a hot shower can moisturise the nose and throat. If, however, you suffer from asthma, steam may worsen your cough.

    If the air in your bedroom is dry, use a humidifier.

    Remove dust from your house and bedding. Dust is a common irritant, and dust mites can trigger allergies.

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