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A cough is a symptom of common viral or bacterial infections of the respiratory tract. They can also occur due to some nonrespiratory and noninfectious reasons in some people. (1)
A type of cough that does not produce mucus is termed unproductive cough or dry cough.
Why Do You Cough?
Coughing is an expiratory action that helps clear the airways. It may occur due to the accumulation of mucus in the respiratory tract or respiratory infections.
Types and Causes of Dry Cough
Cough can be divided into three main categories: acute, subacute, and chronic.
1. Acute cough
A cough that lasts for 3 weeks or lesser is known as acute cough.
It is usually caused by:
- Upper respiratory tract infections (bacterial or viral infections)
- Common cold.
- Pulmonary embolism (blood clot in an artery that supplies blood to the lungs)
2. Subacute cough
A cough that lasts for more than a month is known as subacute cough.
Subacute cough can be caused by:
- Post-infectious cough that occurs after a prolonged bacterial or viral infection due to irritation in cough receptors
3. Chronic cough
Chronic cough lasts for more than 2 months at a time.
Chronic cough may be caused by:
- Lower respiratory tract infections
- Chronic bronchitis
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Congestive heart failure
- Certain medicines
- Obstructive sleep apnea
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) (5)
At times, no identifiable cause may be present for cough. (2)
Symptoms of Dry Cough
Cough can cause symptoms such as:
- Throat itch
- Throat congestion
- Chest pain due to chronic cough (6)
Treatment Modalities for Dry Cough
Most cases of cough can be resolved by taking over-the-counter medicines such as cough suppressants (e.g., dextromethorphan). Expectorants can be used to soothe wet cough and reduce mucus congestion (e.g., guaifenesin).
If your cough does not reduce even after taking these, you can consult a doctor. You may be prescribed antibiotic medicines such as amoxicillin. (5)
Research suggests that coughing helps clear the airways and helps you recover from respiratory infections sooner. Thus, it may not be advisable to take cough suppressants for every patient. Such medications should be reserved only for patients with chronic or severe cough.
When to See a Doctor
COVID-19 is still a cause for concern among many immunocompromised and at-risk individuals. Hence, be on the lookout for symptoms of COVID-19 if you have a cold or cough.
Consult a doctor if:
- You have heart disease and your cough is accompanied by swelling in the legs, worsening of cough while lying down, etc. These could be signs of heart failure.
- You have recently come into contact with a person with tuberculosis.
- You have experienced unexplained weight loss.
- You have night sweats.
- You have a cough that lasts for more than 2 weeks.
- Your infant (younger than 3 months) has a cough.
- You have severe cough that is causing discomfort.
- You have yellow-greenish phlegm (might be a bacterial infection).
- You experience dyspnea or the inability to sleep due to cough.
- You see blood in the sputum after coughing or clearing the throat.
- You experience unintentional weight loss.
A dry cough can be an annoying yet common condition. Give it a couple of weeks to resolve while taking over-the-counter medicines and trying some home remedies (such as ginger tea).
If your cough persists for more than a couple of weeks, consult a doctor for a proper diagnosis and treatment.