What causes a dry cough?

A dry cough has many causes, the most common of which is an upper airway infection that follows a cold. A cold can also lead to a productive cough, which is a cough that produces mucus (phlegm). A persistent, dry cough could also be due to whooping cough (pertussis) or a sign of a chronic condition, such as emphysema or asthma. Whooping cough is uncommon in infants due to vaccination, but it is surprisingly common in adults because vaccination becomes less effective over time.

Serious and life-threatening conditions include congestive heart failure and lung cancer. Because there are so many different possibilities, some of which are life threatening, it is important to contact your doctor to discuss your symptoms and answer your questions.

Infectious causes of a dry cough

Dry cough is a sign of various viral and bacterial infections including:

  • Common cold (viral respiratory infection)
  • Croup (viral illness that is common in young children)
  • Empyema
  • Legionnaires’ disease (type of bacterial pneumonia)
  • Whooping cough (pertussis)
  • Tuberculosis

Other causes of a dry cough

A persistent cough can be due to causes related to respiratory and digestive systems including:

  • Airway irritation (bronchospasm)
  • Aortic aneurysm
  • Asthma and allergies
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD, includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis)
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Foreign body (airway obstruction)
  • Lung cancer
  • Pleurisy (inflammation of the lining around the lungs and chest)
  • Pneumothorax (collapsed lung)
  • Smoking
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus
  • Tumor of the larynx

Medications can cause a dry cough

Certain medications that can cause a dry cough include ACE inhibitors (including captopril) to control high blood pressure.

Questions for diagnosing the cause of a dry cough

To aid in diagnosing the cause of your cough, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will most likely ask you questions related to your symptoms including:

  • How long have you had the cough?
  • Are you coughing up anything (including blood)?
  • Are you breathing through your mouth (instead of your nose)?
  • Is the cough keeping you up at night?
  • Do you have a fever?

What are the potential complications of a dry cough?

A dry cough can be a sign of an infectious or inflammatory process, many of which can be easily treated. Your treatment plan may include self-care measures at home, such as moist air and anti-inflammatory medications. It is important to contact your health care provider when you experience a dry cough without an obvious cause or if your cough is persistent, recurrent, or causes you concern. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, following the treatment plan outlined by your doctor can help lower your risk of potential complications including:

  • Dehydration if cough occurs with diarrhea or vomiting
  • Dehydration due to reduced fluid intake
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Fainting spells from acute cough attack
  • Fatigue
  • Vomiting


  1. Cough. FamilyDoctor.org http://familydoctor.org/online/famdocen/home/tools/symptom/516.html.
  2. Cough. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003072.htm.


What is a dry cough?

A dry cough refers to a cough that does not produce mucus (also known as phlegm or sputum). A cough is your body’s defensive reflex that functions to keep your airways clear of irritating or obstructing substances so you can breathe effectively. Over time, a dry cough can often become a productive cough as the lungs produce more sputum.

... Read more about dry coughintroduction


What other symptoms might occur with a dry cough?

A dry cough often occurs in conjunction with other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Other symptoms include fever, shortness of breath, and chest pain. Symptoms including sounds the lungs make while you are breathing, changes in blood pressure, and low blood oxygen levels ... Read more about dry coughsymptoms

Medical Reviewer: Cynthia Haines, MD Last Annual Review Date: Aug 1, 2013 Copyright: © Copyright 2014 Health Grades, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Health Grades, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the HealthGrades User Agreement.

This Article is Filed Under: Lungs, Breathing and Respiration, Allergies

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