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A dry cough produces little or no mucus and is caused by irritation or inflammation in the throat and chest
A dry cough often occurs alongside a tickly cough and can be caused by viral infections or allergies. Unlike a chesty cough, a dry cough does not produce any mucus and is therefore termed as ‘non-productive.’ Here, our immune system expert Dr. Jen Tan explores the underlying causes and symptoms of a dry cough whilst also recommending natural solutions to ease any irritation or inflammation.
What is a dry cough?
Both dry coughs and tickly coughs are known as non-productive coughs, as distinct from chesty coughs where mucus is produced.
A dry cough is most often the result of infection by cold and flu viruses. It can also be triggered by atmospheric pollutants (such as cigarette smoke) irritating your throat. In most of these situations, dry coughs occur because the back of your throat (or pharynx) becomes irritated or inflamed, but may also arise from deeper in the chest.
Any cough can be a nuisance and this is particularly so if sleep is disturbed. A vicious cycle can develop - if one is tired, recovery from any infection or illness can take longer.
Common causes of dry coughs
The common causes of dry coughs are as follows:
- Viral infections we know as the common cold and flu. These coughs may occur at the start of the illness or more likely, appear towards the middle or the end of the infection, and may linger long after other symptoms have disappeared
- Allergies can also lead to a dry cough. Hayfever, an allergy to grass and tree pollen, causes irritation to the eyes and nose and when the throat is affected, a cough results. Sensitivity to other particles such as animal fur, known as allergic rhinitis, can also lead to the same symptom
- Air pollutants can irritate the back of the throat causing a cough. This is the situation seen when non-smokers enter a smoky room
- Acid reflux is now accepted as a cause of dry coughs. What happens is that the acidic contents of the stomach travels upwards to the back of the throat. Minute amounts of acid may then enter the upper respiratory tract, causing inflammation and coughing. This is more likely when one is lying down flat. Acid reflux is a prominent element of GORD or GERD (Gastro-oesophageal Reflux Disease).
Other causes of dry coughs
Other causes of a dry cough include:
- Side-effect of medication – some medicines, particularly those for high blood pressure, can result in a dry cough
- Psychological conditions – this is when coughing has become a habit. It is also sometimes referred to as a psychogenic cough. There is no physical illness behind the cough and often the person does not even realise he or she is coughing. A feature of this type of cough is that it goes away when one is asleep
- Nerves and stress – many people cough when they are in a stressful situation. Breathing becomes shallow when you are anxious and this can trigger the cough reflex. Some people tend to be more anxious than others, and for them the ‘natural’ nervous cough can become a problem if they find themselves in uncomfortable situations. Often, the underlying problem will have to be addressed in order to cure the dry cough.
Persistent dry coughs
A dry cough that lingers for more than three weeks may be the result of an underlying medical condition such as:
- Asthma – this is a recurring disease which causes your airways to become inflamed and partially blocked
- Heart disease – this is one of the most common causes of ill-health in the Western world. Heart problems can lead to heart failure and a build up of fluid in the lungs and a persistent cough, especially at night
- Lung problems and cancer – a persistent cough can also be a specific sign of lung problems, including lung cancer
- Whooping cough – this is a bacterial disease caused by Bordetella pertussis characterised by bouts of coughing followed by gasping of air in a distinctive ‘whoop’ sound. It is not as common as it used to be
- TB – Tuberculosis is a highly infectious bacterial disease which primarily affects the lungs. In the early stages, it gives rise to a persistent dry cough. TB was once thought to have become extinct throughout the World, but cases have increased recently because of a combination of drug resistance and lowered immune resistance.
Remedies for dry coughs
If the cause of your cough is obvious then treating the underlying problem is going to give you the best chance of relief.
For instance, echinacea can help the symptoms of the common cold (including coughs). Research has shown that it works by maintaining the body’s resistance to infection by strengthening the immune system.
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However, sometimes, specific cough remedies are needed to help ease the symptoms of a dry cough:
- Home remedies such as honey soothe the lining of the tissues at the back of the throat.
- Conventional medicines such as cough suppressants reduce the activity of the cough reflex. These may be prescribed by your doctor or available without a prescription from a pharmacy
- Herbal remedies such as extracts of spruce or pine shoots are ideal for treating dry and tickly coughs coming from the throat
- Herbs such as Mullein and Marshmallow to treat dry cough coming from both the throat and deeper down in the chest
What to look out for
Dry coughs caused by cold and flu viruses usually disappear quickly. However, seek medical advice if you:
- Suspect or know that your cough is caused by an underlying medical condition
- Cough up blood
- Feel short of breath or wheezy
- Suffer from asthma and experience a dry cough, especially at night
- Your cough does not improve within 7 days
- Are suffering from an unexplained persistent cough (one lasting longer than 3 weeks)
- Also feel tired or lethargic
- Experience fever
- Notice unexplained weight loss.
How Echinacea helps
Echinacea is a traditional herb known to aid the body in its fight against the symptoms of cold and flu. Supplements like Echinaforce help increase the body’s resistance to infection by strengthening the immune system, allowing the body to fight the misery of colds and flu.
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