What is a dry cough?
A cough is a reflex action that clears your airway of irritants and mucus. There are two types of cough: productive and nonproductive. A productive cough produces phlegm or mucus, clearing it from the lungs. A nonproductive cough, also known as a dry cough, doesn’t produce phlegm or mucus.
Many things — from allergies to acid reflux — can cause a dry cough. In some cases, there’s no obvious cause.
Regardless of the cause, an ongoing dry cough can seriously impact your day-to-day life, especially if it’s worse at night.
Keep reading to learn more about the possible causes of a dry cough and ways to find relief.
How to stop dry cough at home
Menthol cough drops
Menthol cough drops are available at most drugstores. These medicated lozenges contain compounds from the mint family. They have a powerful cooling effect that soothes irritated tissue and relaxes the cough reflex.
A humidifier is a machine that adds moisture to the air. Dry air, which is common in heated homes, further aggravates inflamed throat tissue. Try using a humidifier in your bedroom at night to make you more comfortable and help you heal faster.
Soup, broth, tea, or another hot beverage
Warm liquids like soup and tea help add moisture while providing immediate relief for sore and scratchy throats. Warm liquids also help keep you hydrated, which is essential to the healing process.
When irritants enter your respiratory system, they can trigger the cough reflex and slow down the healing process. Common irritants include:
- cleaning products
- pet hair
Honey has anti-inflammatory properties that can help reduce inflammation in the throat. It can also help break down mucus and soothe sore throats. Try adding honey to a cup of warm tea or warm water with lemon.
Gargle salt water
Salt water soothes inflamed tissue and promotes healing.
Mix 1/2 teaspoon of salt into an 8-ounce glass of warm water and take a sip. Tilt your head back and gargle gently for 30 seconds, then spit. Never swallow salt water.
Many herbs have anti-inflammatory properties that may help reduce the swelling in your throat.
Herbs are also chock-full of antioxidants, which can help boost your immune system.
You can add herbs to your diet by brewing them into teas or adding them to your favorite recipes. You can also look for supplements and extracts at your local health food store.
Herbs used to treat dry cough include:
- licorice root
- marshmallow root
Vitamins are organic compounds that your body needs to function properly. Different vitamins serve different purposes. For example, vitamin C plays an important role in your immune system.
To get the most bang for your buck, look for a multivitamin at your local drugstore.
Drink plenty of fluids
If you have a dry cough, then fluids are your friend. Staying hydrated will help ensure your throat stays moist so it can heal properly. Aim to drink at least eight glasses of water per day, but more is better.
Bromelain is an enzyme found in pineapples. It has powerful anti-inflammatory properties that may help reduce swollen and irritated throat tissue.
Bromelain may also help break down mucus. You can get a small dose of bromelain in a glass of pineapple juice, but many people prefer to take supplements, which have a much higher concentration.
Probiotics are healthy bacteria that can improve your gut bacteria. A healthy balance of bacteria not only keeps your gut healthy, but also strengthens your immune system so you can fight off infection.
Probiotics are available as a dietary supplement at most drugstores, or you can find them in yogurts containing live active cultures. Just look for the ingredient lactobacillus.
Causes of dry cough
More often than not, dry cough is the result of a virus. It’s not uncommon for a dry cough to continue for weeks after a cold or flu.
Compounding cold and flu season is the fact that home heating systems can cause dry air. Breathing dry air can irritate the throat and prolong healing time.
Other common causes of dry cough include the following:
- Asthma causes the airways to swell and narrow. It can cause dry cough along with symptoms like trouble breathing and wheezing.
- Gastroesophageal reflux disorder (GERD) is a type of chronic acid reflux that can cause damage to the esophagus. Irritation in the esophagus can trigger the cough reflex.
- Postnasal drip is a symptom of the common cold and seasonal allergies. Mucus drips down the back of the throat, activating the cough reflex.
- Allergies and irritants in the air can trigger the cough reflex, prolong healing time, or cause an overproduction of mucus. Common irritants include smoke, pollen, and pet hair.
- ACE inhibitor medications, such as enalapril (Vasotec) and lisinopril (Prinivil, Zestril), are prescription drugs that cause chronic dry cough in about 20 percent of people.
- Whooping cough is a contagious respiratory infection that causes a characteristic dry cough with a “whoop” sound as you gasp for air.
COVID-19 and dry cough
Dry cough is one of the most common symptoms of COVID-19. Other common symptoms include fever and shortness of breath.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)Trusted Source recommends the following steps if you’re sick and suspect you may have COVID-19:
- Stay home.
- Separate yourself from all family members and pets.
- Cover your coughs and sneezes.
- Wear a cloth mask if physical distancing isn’t possible.
- Stay in touch with your doctor.
- Call ahead before seeking medical attention.
- Wash your hands regularly.
- Avoid sharing household items with other people in the house.
- Disinfect common surfaces.
You should also be monitoring your symptoms while at home. You should seek emergency medical attention if you experience any of the following symptoms:
- trouble breathing or talking
- heaviness or tightness in the chest
- bluish lips
Twelve natural cough remedies
People use a range of natural remedies to try to treat a persistent cough. Here, we look at 8 of these remedies in more detail.
Ginger may ease a dry or asthmatic cough, as it has anti-inflammatory properties. It may also relieve nausea and pain.
One study suggests that some anti-inflammatory compounds in ginger can relax membranes in the airways, which could reduce coughing. The researchers mainly studied the effects of ginger on human cells and animals, so more research is necessary.
Brew up a soothing ginger tea by adding 20–40 grams (g) of fresh ginger slices to a cup of hot water. Allow to steep for a few minutes before drinking. Add honey or lemon juice to improve the taste and further soothe a cough.
Be aware that, in some cases, ginger tea can cause stomach upset or heartburn.
2. Honey tea
According to some research, honey may relieve coughs.
A study on treatments for nighttime coughing in children compared dark honey with the cough-suppressing medication dextromethorphan and with no treatment.
The researchers reported that honey provided the most significant relief from coughing, followed by dextromethorphan.
Although the benefits of honey over dextromethorphan were small, parents rated honey most favorably of all three interventions.
To use honey to treat a cough, mix 2 teaspoons (tsp) with warm water or an herbal tea. Drink this mixture once or twice a day. Do not give honey to children under 1 year of age.
A wet cough, which is one that produces mucus or phlegm, may improve with steam. Take a hot shower or bath and allow the bathroom to fill with steam. Stay in this steam for a few minutes until symptoms subside. Drink a glass of water afterward to cool down and prevent dehydration.
Alternatively, make a steam bowl. To do this, fill a large bowl with hot water. Add herbs or essential oils, such as eucalyptus or rosemary, which may also relieve decongestion. Lean over the bowl and place a towel over the head. This traps the steam. Inhale the vapors for 5 minutes. If the steam feels hot on the skin, discontinue until the skin cools down.
People with a wet cough or chest congestion may also wish to follow the recommendations of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) and use a cool-mist humidifier or steam vaporizer in their home.
Staying hydrated is vital for those with a cough or cold. Research indicates that drinking liquids at room temperature can alleviate a cough, runny nose, and sneezing.
However, people with additional symptoms of a cold or flu may benefit from warming up their beverages. The same study reports that hot beverages alleviate even more symptoms, including a sore throat, chills, and fatigue.
The symptom relief was immediate and remained for a continued period after finishing the hot beverage.
Hot beverages that may be comforting include:
- clear broths
- herbal teas
- decaffeinated black tea
- warm water
- warm fruit juices
5. Salt-water gargle
This simple remedy is one of the most effective for treating a sore throat and wet cough. Salt water reduces phlegm and mucus in the back of the throat which can lessen the need to cough.
Stir half a teaspoon of salt into a cup of warm water until it dissolves. Allow the solution to cool slightly before using it to gargle. Let the mixture sit at the back of the throat for a few moments before spitting it out. Gargle with salt water several times each day until the cough improves.
Avoid giving salt water to younger children as they may not be able to gargle properly, and swallowing salt water can be dangerous.
Thyme has both culinary and medicinal uses and is a common remedy for a cough, a sore throat, bronchitis, and digestive issues.
One study found that a cough syrup consisting of thyme and ivy leaves relieved coughing more effectively and more rapidly than a placebo syrup in people with acute bronchitis. Antioxidants in the plant may be responsible for its benefits.
To treat coughs using thyme, look for a cough syrup that contains this herb. Alternatively, make thyme tea by adding 2 tsp of dried thyme to a cup of hot water. Steep for 10 minutes before straining and drinking.
7. N-acetylcysteine (NAC)
NAC is a supplement that comes from the amino acid L-cysteine. Taking a daily dose may lessen the frequency and severity of a wet cough by reducing mucus in the airways.
A meta-analysis of 13 studies suggests that NAC can significantly and consistently reduce symptoms in people with chronic bronchitis. Chronic bronchitis is a prolonged inflammation of the airways that causes mucus build-up, a cough, and other symptoms.
The researchers suggest a daily dose of 600 milligrams (mg) of NAC for people without airway obstruction, and up to 1,200 mg where there is an obstruction.
NAC can have severe side effects, including hives, swelling, fever, and difficulty breathing. Anyone considering this approach should speak to a doctor first.
8. Dietary changes for acid reflux
Acid reflux is a common cause of a cough. Avoiding foods that can trigger acid reflux is one of the best ways to manage this condition and reduce the cough that accompanies it.
Every individual may have different reflux triggers that they need to avoid. People who are unsure of what causes their reflux can begin by eliminating the most common triggers from their diet and monitoring their symptoms.
The foods and beverages that most commonly trigger acid reflux include:
- citrus foods
- fried and fatty foods
- garlic and onions
- spices and spicy foods
- tomatoes and tomato-based products
When to see a doctor
A persistent dry cough is rarely a sign of a medical emergency. But see a healthcare provider right away if you have a fever, chest pain, or trouble breathing.
Otherwise, make an appointment with your doctor if your cough lasts longer than 2 months or seems to worsen over time.