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Dry cough

Description, causes, prevention, treatment and medicines

A dry cough is a cough where no phlegm or mucus is produced (known as non-productive). A dry cough is irritating, usually with a tickly throat.

How long does a cough normally last?

Coughs associated with a cold or the flu tend to last a week or 2, most clearing up within about 3 weeks. A post-viral cough may persist for several (up to about 8) weeks after a viral illness, while some coughs persist for longer and are usually a sign of an underlying problem.

In adults and children, a cough is described as acute (short term) if you have been coughing for up to 2 weeks.

In adults, a cough that lasts for more than 8 weeks is described as a chronic (ongoing) persistent cough.

In children, a cough that lasts 2 to 4 weeks is called a prolonged acute cough. A cough that lasts more than 4 weeks is considered to be a chronic cough.

Causes of dry cough

A dry cough is often the result of:

  • a viral illness, such as a cold or influenza (the flu); or
  • a post-viral, or post-infective, cough (cough that persists for weeks after a viral illness).

However, a dry cough may be a result of other problems, such as:

  • asthma;
  • gastro-oesophageal reflux;
  • smoking;
  • allergic rhinitis (hay fever) due to inhaling substances you are allergic to, such as pollen, dust or pet dander;
  • post-nasal drip (the drainage of mucus secretions from the nose or sinuses down the back of the throat);
  • laryngitis (inflammation of the larynx, also known as the voice box);
  • whooping cough;
  • obstructive sleep apnoea and snoring;
  • habit cough (a cough that is only present in the daytime and not caused by illness – it most often affects school-aged children);
  • certain types of lung disease known as interstitial lung disease; or
  • a side effect from a medicine (for example, cough is a possible side effect of most ACE inhibitors – often prescribed for high blood pressure).

Other, less common, causes of a dry cough include:

  • heart failure;
  • pulmonary embolism (a blood clot in the lungs); or
  • lung cancer.

A dry cough can be aggravated by:

  • breathing cold, dry air;
  • air pollution;
  • inhaled irritants such as dust or smoke;
  • exposure to tobacco smoke;
  • excessive use of your voice; or
  • a change in temperature.

Complications

A persistent dry cough can cause problems, including the following complications.

  • Repeated coughing can lead to urinary incontinence in women, especially older women, pregnant women and those who have been pregnant.
  • Interrupted sleep resulting in tiredness is a common problem for people with a persistent cough.
  • Severe or uncontrollable coughing fits can sometimes cause vomiting.
  • Headaches may result from a persistent cough.

Can I hurt myself coughing?

When a cough is severe, pulled chest muscles and even fractured ribs are a possible complication.

Diagnosis and tests

Your doctor will ask about your cough and any other symptoms you may have, and perform a physical examination. Depending on your age, history and examination, your doctor may order tests such as:

  • a chest X-ray;
  • a throat swab (sample of secretions from the back of your throat which can be tested for infections);
  • lung function tests; or
  • allergy tests.

Dry coughs are often related to a viral illness and in most cases special tests are not needed.

When should you seek medical advice about a dry cough?

You should you seek medical advice if:

  • you start to cough up blood or copious amounts of mucus (phlegm);
  • you are short of breath or wheezy;
  • the cough is mainly at night;
  • you have associated chest pain;
  • you have a fever;
  • you are a cigarette smoker;
  • you have a hoarse voice;
  • the cough is associated with vomiting or a choking sensation;
  • you have other symptoms such as an ongoing headache, sore ears or a rash;
  • you have recently lost weight or have general muscle aches;
  • the cough is in an infant aged 6 months or younger;
  • the cough has lasted longer than 10 days, with little or no improvement; or
  • you have high blood pressure, a heart complaint, respiratory illness (such as asthma), gastric problems or are taking other medicines.

Note: This information may not be actual at the time of reading. Always look for actual instructions in the package with the medication.
It is forbidden to use these materials without the advice of healthcare professional.

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