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Dry Cough

Symptoms, Causes, Related Conditions, Questions & Related Topics

Key Points

  • The article outlines the main causes of a dry cough, including foreign objects, asthma, allergies, cold or flu, and acid reflux.
  • It also highlights various health conditions related to a dry cough, such as chronic bronchitis, whooping cough, heart failure, collapsed lung, lung cancer, and COVID-19.
  • The article emphasizes the importance of recognizing a dry cough as the second most common symptom of COVID-19.
  • It provides a list of questions a doctor may ask to diagnose the cause of a dry cough, including its duration, recent illnesses, other symptoms, smoking habits, and potential COVID-19 exposure.
  • The article concludes by noting that a dry cough can also be referred to as an unproductive cough or a light cough.

Top 5 Causes of Dry Cough

1. Foreign Item

We’ve all coughed because of food, water or another type of beverage, smoke (either from intentional smoking or secondhand), or another foreign object that caused the involuntary coughing reflex. This is probably the most common type of cough you’re likely to experience in your life. It can last for several seconds or minutes and can be uncomfortable, but it typically goes away with little effort. When a person coughs but can’t clear their airway, it is possible they could be choking, which requires immediate help. A friend or family member can offer help with the Heimlich maneuver.

2. Asthma

Many people have asthma and those who do have had it for the majority of their lives. It’s possible to experience an uncomfortable dry cough if you are hit with an asthma attack and feel your airways begin to swell.[1] Although a cough can be a sign of an asthma attack, other signs include wheezing, tightness in the chest, and shortness of breath. People with asthma often carry inhalers, which can resolve or relieve the symptoms of asthma attacks.

3. Allergies

Coughing can be a sign of allergies, especially if an individual often has allergy attacks that cause them to sneeze and become congested. Plenty of different allergens, including types of food, medicines, pollen, dust, mold, and insect stings, can cause coughing as one of their side effects.[2] In severe cases, anaphylactic shock causes the airways to close up, making it hard or impossible for the person to breathe. Call 911 immediately if this occurs.

4. Cold

A cold or the flu can cause coughing, as can a number of other of infections, including pneumonia and bronchitis. Usually, a cold causes mild to moderate coughing, and the flu can cause more intense coughing.[3] Your cough might be wet during the peak of your illness, but a dry cough could last for a while after the common cold or the flu has subsided. If it does, you might want to see a doctor to make sure it isn’t a symptom of something worse. Usually over the counter cold medicine can make you feel much better.

5. Acid Reflux

Acid reflux can occur occasionally in a person’s life when their bile or stomach acid causes irritation to the lining of their esophagus. A dry cough is one of the common symptoms, along with heartburn and stomach discomfort. However, an issue called gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, causes painful and chronic acid reflux that occurs twice a week or more.[4] If you frequently experience severe acid reflux, you might want to talk to your doctor about treatment.

Possible Health Conditions Related to Dry Cough

1. Chronic Bronchitis

Instead of getting acute bronchitis, some people get chronic bronchitis, a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The leading cause of this serious issue is cigarette smoking, but habitually breathing in polluted air, dust, or fumes can also cause it to occur.[5] Often, this condition never completely goes away, but you can get help managing it from your doctor, and treatments such as oxygen therapy can minimize your symptoms.

2. Whooping Cough

Whooping cough was once a very common disease among children, and it caused a high-pitched, dry cough. The condition is contagious, but most children are now vaccinated against it.[1] However, very young children who have yet to be vaccinated or adults who have less of an immunity to the illness can still get whooping cough. Also called pertussis, whooping cough seems a lot like the common cold, but the coughing fits it causes are far more intense and persistent.

3. Heart Failure

Heart failure is not particularly common but still possible cause of a persistent, dry cough. Some individuals also cough up mucus that is foamy, white, or light pink in color.[1] Other symptoms that point to heart failure include swelling in the legs and feet, fluid retention, fatigue, a rapid or irregular heartbeat, and sudden shortness of breath.

4. Collapsed Lung

A collapsed lung is a possible cause of a dry cough. You might also experience a rapid heart rate, chest pain, and shortness of breath; however, a collapsed lung sometimes has no symptoms.[6] In most cases, a lung collapses because of a chest injury or a disease like lung cancer, and treatment depends on what caused the lung to collapse.

5. Lung Cancer

In rare cases, a dry cough can be a sign of lung cancer. If you are a longtime smoker, it is important to consider this as a possibility. For those who do have lung cancer, the cough can be painful. Other symptoms, such as weight loss, wheezing, chest pain, shortness of breath, and hoarseness, can occur. Coughing up blood is a strong sign of lung cancer, as is a cough that changes over time.[1] If you are a smoker and your dry cough accompanies any of these other symptoms, it is important to talk to your doctor.

6. Coronavirus (COVID-19)

A dry cough is the second most common symptom associated with COVID-19.[7] COVID-19 is a respiratory illness characterized by a long list of symptoms that can range from mild to severe. COVID-19 is thought to spread mainly from person to person, including from those who are not showing or experiencing any symptoms. Dry cough caused by COVID-19 may be accompanied by other common symptoms including fever, shortness of breath, fatigue, sore throat, and headache.[8]

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Your Dry Cough

  • How long have you dealt with your dry cough?
  • Have you been sick recently?
  • Do you have any other symptoms, such as chest pain, wheezing, or stomach discomfort?
  • Do you smoke?
  • Does your cough hurt?
  • Do you have asthma or another long-term respiratory condition?
  • Have you recently been exposed to anyone else with a dry cough?
  • Have you recently been exposed to anyone infected with COVID-19?
  • Have you recently spent time in a large crowd of people, or near others who were not wearing cloth face coverings?

Dry Cough May Also Be Known as

  • Unproductive cough
  • Light cough

Frequently asked questions

  • What are the main causes of a dry cough?

    The main causes of a dry cough can be foreign objects, asthma, allergies, cold or flu, and acid reflux.
  • What serious health conditions can a dry cough indicate?

    A dry cough can indicate serious health conditions like chronic bronchitis, whooping cough, heart failure, collapsed lung, lung cancer, and COVID-19.
  • Is a dry cough a common symptom of COVID-19?

    Yes, a dry cough is the second most common symptom of COVID-19.
  • What questions might a doctor ask if I have a dry cough?

    A doctor might ask about the duration of your cough, any recent illnesses you've had, other symptoms you're experiencing, your smoking habits, and whether you've potentially been exposed to COVID-19.
  • Is a dry cough also known as something else?

    Yes, a dry cough can also be referred to as an unproductive cough or a light cough.

Solv has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.

Related Health Concerns



Asthma Test

Bee sting

Breathing Treatment

COVID-19 Vaccine


Cold Medicine


Eosinophilic Esophagitis

Food Allergies




Shortness of Breath

Sinus Pressure



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