Coughing is your body’s way of clearing airways of mucus as well as dust and other irritants. By itself, a cough probably isn’t a sign of a more serious health problem and will likely go away within three weeks. While you may experience a wet or chesty cough — one that brings up phlegm or otherwise feels like it’s clearing your throat — you may also experience a dry cough. These may come with a tickling sensation and don’t come with mucus.
What you should take for a dry cough depends on what’s causing it. In all cases, however, if a cough — wet or dry — lasts for more than three weeks, it may be worth scheduling a visit to the doctor. While most coughs are caused by minor infections of the upper respiratory tract, in rare cases, they can be a sign of more serious problems.
What Causes a Dry Cough?
Coughing helps get rid of irritants and germs that have gathered in the throat. The throat and lungs are normally coated in a small amount of mucus to keep them moist and protect against germs and harmful substances. Under normal circumstances, coughing helps to redistribute that mucus to where it needs to be. Nerves in your throat, nose and lungs also let your body know when it should cough to expel irritants.
The common cold, allergies to pollen or other airborne irritants, smoking and breathing in caustic fumes are common causes of a dry cough, although there are rarer culprits. A post-nasal drip — when mucus drips down the throat from the back of the nose — can cause a wet or dry cough, while bronchitis and pneumonia may start out as a dry cough before becoming a wet one. Pertussis, which is more commonly known as whooping cough, can cause severe dry coughing, although it’s most severe (and dangerous) in infants. Children are also more susceptible to croup, which causes a loud, barking cough. ACE inhibitors, a kind of prescribed medicine used to treat heart disease and high blood pressure, can also make people cough.
There are also many long-lasting conditions that can cause a dry cough, including asthma, acid-reflux and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The latter is caused when the lungs become inflamed after frequent exposure to irritants, especially cigarette smoke. Heart failure, lung collapse, lung cancer and pulmonary embolism — when a blood clot travels from elsewhere in the body to the lungs — are life-threatening but much rarer causes of a dry cough. Strangely enough, stress can also cause coughing.