What is a Dry Cough? Facts About a Common Coronavirus (COVID-19) Symptom

Health Conditions

What is a Dry Cough? Facts About a Common Coronavirus (COVID-19) Symptom

Ilima Loomis
By Ilima Loomis
Apr 03, 2020
Maya Heinert, MD
Medically Reviewed ByMaya Heinert, MD
What is a Dry Cough? Facts About a Common Coronavirus (COVID-19) Symptom

With coronavirus (COVID-19) dominating the news and spreading rapidly across the country, you’re probably already familiar with its most common symptoms, including fever, shortness of breath, and dry cough. But what exactly is a “dry cough,” and how do you know if your cough is just an annoying symptom or a sign of something more worrying?

In fact, coronavirus isn’t the only disease that causes dry cough; it’s a common symptom of many conditions. Here’s what you need to know about dry cough, how to recognize it, and how to know if it’s a sign of a more serious problem like COVID-19.

What is a Dry Cough?

Everyone knows what a cough sounds like, but what makes a dry cough different? Basically, a dry cough is a cough without any mucus or phlegm.

When someone has a “wet” cough, their throat and chest are coated in mucus, which gets loosened and pushed out each time the person coughs.

A wet cough is sometimes called a productive cough because it produces phlegm. The sick person can feel the phlegm moving around and might expectorate or spit it out, and the cough might sound gurgling or uneven.

A dry cough doesn’t produce any phlegm. To the sick person, it can feel like an “unsatisfying” cough, because it doesn’t come with the relief of clearing the airway of mucus. The cough will sound hoarse, barking, and consistent.

While the cough itself might not be painful, if it goes on for a long time, the strain of coughing can injure the bones and muscles around the rib cage. It can also cause exhaustion because it can make it hard to sleep.

What are the Causes of a Dry Cough?

A dry cough is caused when the airways or lungs are irritated by something, but there’s no phlegm or mucus produced. There are a variety of conditions that can cause a dry cough, from asthma to the common cold. So how do you know if a cough might be caused by coronavirus (COVID-19)?

A dry cough may be a sign of coronavirus if it is accompanied by other symptoms of the disease. Here are common symptoms of coronavirus (COVID-19):

  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Chills
  • Bodyache
  • Nasal congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Diarrhea
  • Loss of taste or smell

If you think you might have coronavirus, stay home, and try to isolate yourself from other people in your home. Follow these guidelines to protect your household members.

Dr. Maya Heinert, medical expert for RxSaver™ explains, “Coughing is a healthy and normal reaction of the airways to try to dispel a foreign particle, often microscopic irritants found in ambient air.”

Heinert furthers, “It can also be the sign of an infectious illness, and the difference always lies in the other symptoms that go along with the cough. Right now, people have to realize that any cough associated with other signs of the common cold or the flu could possibly be an infection with COVID-19.”

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What are the Treatments of a Dry Cough?

While there is currently no treatment for COVID-19, there are things you can do to relieve symptoms and feel better when you have a dry cough.

In some cases, your doctor might prescribe a cough suppressant to control your symptoms. If the cough is caused by something like allergies or asthma, they might also prescribe medication to treat the underlying condition.

Other home remedies can also help. Drinking tea, broth, or other warm liquids can help soothe your throat, and sucking on a lozenge or hard candy can provide relief. Honey can reduce irritation, and was found in one study to help reduce coughing.

Gargling with a salt water solution has been found to soothe a sore throat. A humidifier or steamy shower can make breathing easier and more comfortable by moisturizing the air. And avoiding tobacco smoke and other irritants is a good idea to minimize coughing.

Finally, if you think you might have coronavirus, call a doctor and seek immediate medical attention, especially if you are experiencing emergency warning signs including difficulty breathing, chest pain or pressure, confusion or difficulty waking, or blue lips or face.

Update 4/3/2020: The CDC recommends people use cloth face coverings when out in public and continue to practice social distancing.  This is especially important for those in highly impacted areas of COVID-19.

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Illnesses Associated with a Dry Cough

While a cough or scratchy throat might make you worried about coronavirus, there are actually several conditions that can cause a dry cough. Some of these include:

  • Asthma
  • Allergies and hay fever
  • Postnasal drip
  • Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, or scar tissue in the lungs
  • Acid reflux

While much less common, a chronic, dry cough could also be a symptom of something more serious like lung cancer. A cough that doesn’t seem to go away can also be the result of long-term exposure to irritants, pollution or dust, or as a result of smoking. Other more serious coughs are those that wake you up from sleep or are prolonged (lasting more than a few weeks).

If you’re recovering from a cold you may cough naturally for weeks afterward as your body recovers and tries to remove phlegm from the lungs. And people with allergies often cough when they lie down because of post-nasal drip.

There are many possible causes of dry cough, and lots of perfectly normal reasons to cough, but it’s natural that most people right now are concerned that it may be a symptom of coronavirus.

Don’t Panic if You Have a Dry Cough

Heinert reiterates, “The good news is that as frightening as the pandemic is for all of us, the numbers show us that the vast majority of people who contract infection with COVID-19 will experience mild symptoms. People with underlying health conditions like diabetes or heart disease, people who are immunocompromised, and people over 65 years of age are at higher risk and should shelter in place to avoid exposure. Younger people in any of these categories should also be taking every precaution to avoid exposure.

The bottom line is that a cough by itself is not a cause for alarm. If you have other symptoms of coronavirus, consult a doctor and isolate yourself from others. Unless you experience more serious symptoms, you can usually treat the cough at home and get relief until you recover.

Heinert reminds us, “In otherwise healthy people, dry cough that occurs every day, or even spells of dry cough during allergy season, for example, are not a cause for alarm.”

Ilima Loomis

Ilima Loomis

Ilima Loomis is a freelance writer and journalist who specializes in writing about health care, HR, science, travel, and Hawaii. You can find more of her work at ilimaloomis.com. Ilima is a regular contributor to the RxSaver blog.

Maya Heinert, MD

Maya Heinert, MD

Maya Heinert, MD, is a pediatric emergency medicine physician based in Sacramento. A medical expert for RxSaver, she strives to educate consumers about how everyday choices—including those about the medicines they take—impact their overall health and wellness.

The information on this site is generalized and is not medical advice. It is intended to supplement, not substitute for, the expertise and judgment of your healthcare professional. Always seek the advice of your healthcare professional with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard seeking advice or delay in seeking treatment because of something you have read on our site. RxSaver makes no warranty as to the accuracy, reliability or completeness of this information.

If you are in crisis or you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately.