What can cause a dry cough?

Coughing is a natural reflex to clear the throat and lungs of irritants. While a dry cough is occasionally a cause for concern, a persistent cough may indicate an underlying medical condition that may be more serious.

A dry cough, or sometimes a dry cough, is a cough that does not produce phlegm or mucus. Dry coughing can cause a tingling sensation and is often due to throat irritation.

Doctors often refer to a dry cough as a non-productive cough. In contrast, a wet or productive cough causes phlegm that helps clear the airways of irritants. Doctors also classify coughs as acute or chronic. The cough is chronic if it lasts more than 8 weeks.


Asthma is a long-term lung condition that causes inflammation and narrowing of the airways in the lungs. One of the most common symptoms of asthma is a cough, which is usually worse at night or early in the morning when a person first wakes up.

The cough is often productive, which means that it brings phlegm. However, in a type of asthma called cough variant asthma, the main symptom that people experience is a dry cough. Other symptoms of asthma can include:

  • Wheezing
  • Short of breath.
  • Chest tightness or pain.
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There is currently no cure for asthma, so treatment focuses on relieving symptoms and preventing future attacks. Doctors typically prescribe the following treatments for people with asthma:

A quick-relief inhaler, such as a short-acting beta-2 agonist, to treat symptoms when they flare up. Long-term medications, such as a low-dose corticosteroid inhaler, to reduce inflammation and prevent future attacks.

Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis

Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) is a condition in which scar tissue develops within a person’s lungs. As the scar tissue thickens, it makes breathing in air increasingly difficult. The term idiopathic means that doctors don’t know exactly what causes the condition. One of the most common symptoms of IPF is a persistent, dry cough. Other symptoms can include:

  • Short of breath.
  • Loss of appetite and gradual weight loss.
  • Fatigue.
  • Pounding, or widening and rounding the tips of the fingers or toes, also affecting the shape of the nails.
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There is currently no cure for IPF, so the goal of treatment is to relieve a person’s symptoms and slow the progression of the disease. Treatment options for IPF include:

  • Medicines such as pirfenidone and nintedanib.
  • Oxygen therapy.
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation, which is an exercise, training, and support program
  • for people with long-term lung conditions.
  • Lung transplant

Gastroesophageal reflux disease

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a condition in which acid leaks from the stomach into the esophagus or food tube. According to one review, GERD causes a chronic, dry cough in up to 40 percent of people with the condition. GERD generally causes a number of gastrointestinal symptoms as well, which can include:

  • Acidity.
  • Sickness.
  • Vomiting
  • Pain or difficulty swallowing
  • Bad breath.

However, research suggests that up to 75 percent of people with GERD-related coughs may not experience these gastrointestinal symptoms. This can make it difficult for doctors to diagnose GERD in people with a chronic, dry cough.

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Many people can manage GERD symptoms through lifestyle changes, such as:

  • Eat several small meals each day instead of three large meals.
  • Limit or avoid foods that trigger or worsen symptoms, such as fatty or spicy foods.
  • Keep a healthy weight.
  • Stop smoking tobacco.
  • Reduce or avoid drinking alcohol.
  • Over-the-counter medications and prescription medications, such as antacids, H2 receptor blockers, and proton pump inhibitors can also help relieve or prevent symptoms.

Postnasal drip

Postnasal drip is when mucus from the nose and sinuses drip down the back of the throat. When mucus drips down the throat, it can cause a cough. Although this cough is often productive, it can also sometimes be dry.  Postnasal drip often occurs with a sinus infection or due to a nasal allergy, such as hay fever. Other symptoms of postnasal drip can include:

  • A runny nose.
  • A sensation of something in the back of the throat.
  • Throat pain.


Treatment options for postnasal drip include decongestants, nasal sprays, and nasal saline irrigation.

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