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Dry cough

Written by Healthwords's team of doctors and pharmacists based in UK | Updated: 21.02.2023 | 3 min read

A cough is the body’s natural way of responding to irritation in your respiratory tract. When specialized sensors in your airways detect an irritant such as smoke, dust, or pollution, it triggers a cough reflex that causes the muscles in your airways to contract and pushes a burst of air out through your airways in an attempt to remove the cause of the irritation.

A dry cough is when you cough without bringing up any mucous or phlegm, which can irritate your throat. It is a common type of cough that can be caused by an infection, asthma, environmental irritant, or irritation caused by acid reflux. It may be a side effect of certain medications, such as ACE inhibitors for high blood pressure. A constant dry cough results from your cough reflex becoming more sensitive than usual.

Next steps

Starting small by taking it easy, getting good sleep, and ensuring that you are eating and drinking well will all help. Going out in cold weather can cause you to cough more, so wrap up warm. You can try some simple over-the-counter treatments to help with your symptoms.

Caidr pharmacists have put together some of our favorite medications that can be purchased to help with a dry cough.

Caidr pharmacists' top tips

These treatments will not stop your cough but may help to relieve your symptoms. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen can be used to alleviate pain in your throat or respiratory muscles from coughing. Simple Linctus or a hot honey and lemon drink can soothe your throat, and Bronchostop, cough sweets, or lozenges work the same way if you're out and about.

Dextromethorphan can help suppress the urge to cough, which might help if you've got a phone call to make or a meeting to attend.

How can I stop my cough interrupting sleep?

It is relatively common to find that your dry cough is worse at night and is affecting your sleep. This is likely due to the reduced saliva you produce, which leads to your throat becoming more dehydrated and more sensitive to triggering your cough reflex.

If this is the case, you can try the previous simple remedies and add a sleep aid such as the antihistamine diphenhydramine. The cough suppressant dextromethorphan can often be combined with diphenhydramine to relieve nighttime coughing.

When should I see my doctor?

Most dry coughs get better by themselves within two weeks with rest, plenty of fluids, and throat-soothing treatments as necessary. In some cases, symptoms can last for up to three weeks. You should book a routine appointment to discuss with your doctor if your cough is not improving after two weeks, you have asthma, or you are concerned about your symptoms.

This can also be a sign of COVID-19, so you should order a PCR test and isolate until you have a result.

Suppose your symptoms are severe, and you do not respond to pharmacy medications. In that case, if you are finding it hard to catch your breath, maintain fluids or bring your fever down with medication, you are coughing up blood or a smoker. If you are suddenly losing weight, speak to your doctor urgently or call 911 after working hours.

If you are immunocompromised because of medication or a condition, or you have long-term medical conditions such as diabetes, heart, lung, kidney, or neurological illnesses, speak to your doctor.

Your doctor will listen to your concerns and symptoms and take note of other medical conditions, medications, and any family history. They will take your vital signs, including breathing rate, heart rate, oxygen content in your tissues, and blood pressure. They will listen to your heart and chest and may look at your throat. They may send you for further investigations, such as a chest X-ray, blood tests, take any mucus sample or throat swab, and they will refer you to a hospital team if necessary.

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