What Causes a Dry Cough?

By definition, a dry cough does not produce any mucus or phlegm. Sometimes called a tickle cough, a dry cough typically results from an infection caused by cold and flu viruses. A dry cough also may be triggered by environmental pollutants that irritate the throat, such as cigarette smoke. Dry coughs occur when the back of your throat is irritated or inflamed, but sometimes they arise from the chest.

Causes of Dry Cough

The most common cause of dry cough is a viral infection, such as the common cold or flu. In most cases, dry cough occurs toward the middle or end of an infection, but they may occur at the beginning of the illness. Dry cough may also be a side effect of medication, especially those for high blood pressure. Hay fever may also cause enough inflammation to lead to a dry cough.

Surprisingly, psychological conditions may cause a dry cough when the coughing has become a habit. People with this type of dry cough do not realize they have been coughing. To determine whether a psychological condition is the cause of dry cough, it helps to determine whether the cough goes away while the person sleeps.

Finally, nerves and stress may be behind a dry cough. People who are especially anxious experience shallow breathing, which triggers the cough reflex. The dry cough occurs when these people experience uncomfortable situations, and the only way to stop the dry cough is to address the underlying anxiety. 

Effects of Dry Cough

Dry coughs may be acute (caused by a viral infection and lasting one to two weeks) or chronic (caused by asthma, allergies, post-nasal drip, acid reflux, environmental factors, or psychological or anxiety issues), but doctors say there are not any long-term health implications if they go untreated. On the other hand, untreated dry coughs that become severe can lead to pulled muscles or broken ribs. Untreated dry coughs also keep people awake, causing fatigue and other health issues. That’s why so many people seek treatment for their dry cough.

Treating Dry Cough

The question, though, is which treatment is most effective for dry cough. More and more studies are showing that over-the-counter cough medications do not work. A study by Ronald Eccles of the Common Cold Centre at Cardiff University found that that for people taking cough suppressants, 85% of symptom relief is due to their belief that the treatment will be effective. Additionally, there is no strong proof that expectorants are more effective at treating coughs than placebos.

That’s why people are turning to alternative treatments for their dry cough. These treatments sooth irritated mucous membranes and remove the irritant that triggers the cough, which stops the cough at its source. People also prefer these alternative treatments because they do not contain the chemicals that are in cough medicine and because they often taste better.

Clare Goodall, author of Everyday Roots, recommends 7 natural cough remedies for dry coughs, and we share our favorite three below:

  • A spoonful of honey – A study conducted at Penn State College of Medicine found that honey works more efficiently to calm coughs than over-the-counter drugs. Adults should take 1 tablespoon of organic, raw honey 1-3 times daily to control coughing.
  • Gargle salt water – Salt water causes water to leave the cells in mucous membranes, reducing swelling and decreasing discomfort. So, if your cough is the result of an irritated or inflamed throat, gargling with salt water will help. Stir 1 teaspoon of salt into 8 ounces of warm water, gargle for 15 seconds, spit, and repeat. Rinse your mouth with plain water when finished.
  • Tea tree and eucalyptus oil steam – Tea tree oil and eucalyptus oil help soothe and open airways, plus help fight off bacteria and viruses. Boil enough water to halfway fill a medium-size heatproof bowl. Pour the water into the bowl and let it cool for 30-60 seconds. Then add 3 drops of tea tree oil and 1-2 drops of eucalyptus oil and stir quickly to release the vapors. Cover your head with a soft, clean towel and lean over the bowl, trapping the steam while breathing deeply, for 5-10 minutes 2-3 times a day.

Probiotics for Dry Cough

There are numerous health benefits of probiotics. Probiotics, or good bacteria, help to treat the underlying conditions that cause dry cough. Research shows that Lactobacillus may prevent colds and flu, and it possibly reduces pollen allergies. In fact, studies show that children who drank milk fortified with the probiotic had fewer and less sever colds, and children in daycare who took a combination of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium had fewer flu-like symptoms. Research also shows that probiotics combined with vitamins and minerals reduce the number of colds in adults.

Determining the cause of your dry cough and treating it with alternatives to over-the-counter cough suppressants, such as probiotics, will most likely help you to feel better and get more sleep.


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