A cough is a forceful expulsion of air from the lungs to get rid of irritants, germs, and foreign bodies. It is classified based on various factors, including duration, nature, and associated symptoms. Based on the time of the cough, it may be acute, sub-acute, or chronic. Acute cough lasts less than three weeks, sub-acute may last between three to eight weeks, while chronic cough extends beyond eight weeks.

Moreover, if the cough is accompanied by sputum or phlegm, it is termed a productive cough. Likewise, the absence of any of these suggests a non-productive or dry cough. A productive cough may have several causative factors based on the color of the sputum. It may also be due to viruses, bacteria, or allergens.

On the other hand, the diagnostic evaluation of dry cough is difficult for physicians. Still, some tests may help in finding out a definite cause. A dry cough may have various reasons, which we’ll discuss below.

Causes of dry cough

No matter the reason behind the dry cough, it worsens the quality of life due to the tickling sensation in the throat. The causes of a dry cough may be as simple as a seasonal allergy or flu or as severe as lung cancers with potentially fatal outcomes. Therefore, it’s imperative to know the cause.

Now, let’s discuss some causes of dry cough.

Pleural mesothelioma

It’s the cancer of the outer lining of the lungs with an average life expectancy of 1-2 years after diagnosis. According to multiple research, people acquire this cancer from a carcinogen known as asbestos. Unfortunately, this carcinogen is present in various household items such as slow cookers, dishwashers, vinyl floor tile, etc. A person suffering from pleural mesothelioma may experience:

  1. Long-standing, persistent cough
  2. Chest pain
  3. Unintentional weight loss
  4. Shortness of breath
  5. Fatigue
  6. Night sweats

It’s rare cancer and typically occurs after years of asbestos exposure. Treatment depends on the stage of cancer. Earlier stages are treated with surgery, exceeding the life expectancy by a few years. However, later stages have no curative treatment option, and only palliative care is delivered.

Post-nasal dripping

Occasionally, in seasonal flu or allergies, the phlegm produced in the nose may fall back into the throat, particularly at night. As a result, the phlegm combined with bacteria may irritate the throat resulting in a dry cough. Some other associated symptoms may include:

  1. Runny nose
  2. Pain in throat
  3. Pain in swallowing
  4. Tickling foreign body sensation in the throat
  5. Low-grade fever
  6. Nocturnal cough

Treatment depends upon the underlying cause. However, steam inhalation, nebulization with saline water, and warm saline gargles provide soothing.

Viral infections

Some viral infections may irritate the throat and result in a dry cough that may linger for a few weeks. These may cause the following:

  1. Dry cough
  2. Runny nose
  3. Sore throat
  4. Fever
  5. Body ache
  6. Malaise

These usually last a week and resolve on their own with home remedies and over-the-counter throat lozenges. Warm gargles and warm honey may also soothe the tickling and pain in the throat. However, if you’re unable to remedy it, it’s best to approach a health professional.


Asthma is an allergic reaction to specific irritating triggers like dust, pollen, animal dander, and perfumes. People with asthma are otherwise healthy but develop symptoms on repeated exposure to triggers. Some other signs pointing to asthma include:

  1. Shortness of breath
  2. Nocturnal cough
  3. Whistling sound from airways (wheezing)
  4. Tightness around chest

Treatment for acute asthma attacks is short-acting beta-agonists inhalers that may alleviate the sudden attack of life-threatening symptoms. In contrast, long-term treatment compromises long-acting beta-agonists inhalers with inhaled or oral steroids based on the severity of symptoms.

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)

GERD is a disorder in which the muscles at the opening between the esophagus and stomach weaken. It results in the backflow of stomach acid into the esophagus up to the throat irritating the nerves. The symptoms typically follow a heavy, fatty meal. Some of the common symptoms are

  1. Nocturnal cough
  2. Sleep disturbances
  3. Heartburn
  4. Chest pain
  5. Reflux of sour liquid
  6. Frequent Burping and Belching of gases

Treatment includes lifestyle modifications like taking frequent small portions of lighter meals. Also, avoiding processed foods, using extra pillows at night to elevate the head, and over-the-counter antacids.

Heart Failure

Conditions like heart attack, hypertension, and heart valve disorders increase the workload of the heart. It makes it difficult for the heart to pump blood efficiently to meet the body’s needs. A person with a heart failure problem experience:

  1. Shortness of breath initially upon exertion and later at rest
  2. Shortness of breath at night
  3. Nocturnal cough
  4. Fatigue
  5. Swelling of ankles and feet
  6. Fluid retention
  7. Weight gain

Heart failure causes permanent damage to the heart. Thus, treatment is based on relieving the symptoms and slowing the disease progression. Physicians treat heart failure with diuretics, oxygen, pain killers. Moreover, disease-specific treatment is provided to treat the underlying cause.

Lung cancer

Lung Cancer is the most common cause of cancer deaths worldwide. It has two types based on biopsy findings. Common risk factors associated with lung cancer comprise tobacco smoking, first-degree family members with lung cancer, radon exposure, exposure to chest radiation, arsenic, and certain chemicals. The cough is initially dry, but later it may be associated with sputum. A few common symptoms reflecting lung cancer are:

  1. Persistent chronic cough
  2. Blood in sputum
  3. Unexpected Weight loss
  4. Chest pain
  5. Shortness of breath
  6. Prolonged low-grade fever
  7. Hoarseness of voice

The treatment options vary primarily depending on the type and stage of cancer. A combination treatment of chemotherapy and surgery is suitable for the initial stages. On the other hand, in the advanced phases, palliative care is offered.


A dry cough is rarely a matter of concern. However, it may disturb your life if it persists for long and causes discomfort. Home remedies and over-the-counter medicines may help in soothing the throat in the meantime. But if it goes on for too long, then a comprehensive evaluation by a physician is mandatory. Diseases like mesothelioma or asthma could be the cause behind it. And that’s why it’s better to be safe and seek professional help.