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Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments For Dry Cough

How To Treat A Dry Cough

Mandi Franklin, MS, RN, CPNP-PC - Genexa Healthcare Provider & Partner Profile Photo

Written by Mandi Franklin, MS, RN, CPNP-PC - Genexa Healthcare Provider & Partner on December 6, 2021

Medically reviewed by Camille Freking, MS Pharmacology

When you or your little one come down with a dry, nagging cough, it can be highly uncomfortable… especially at nighttime if your symptoms keep you awake.

There are plenty of home remedies and over-the-counter medicines that can help treat a dry cough, but in order to choose the best treatment plan you should first figure out what exactly is causing your symptoms. Allergies, an irritated throat, a cold, or another form of illness are all possible culprits for a dry cough, but they are not all treated with the same methods.

This is your complete guide to a dry cough from symptoms to treatments so you can have your questions answered.

Most Common Causes of a Dry Cough

A dry cough can have plenty of potential culprits, many of which are completely benign and can be easily treated either with medicine or with some home remedies. So, if your little one is struggling through a little dry cough, you generally do not need to worry too much! But when in doubt, seek the care of his/her health provider!

Dry coughs can be caused by a few different things, including:

  • Common cold
  • The flu
  • Seasonal allergies or hay fever
  • Nonallergic rhinitis, including inhalation of irritants like cigarette smoke, car exhaust, or household chemicals and fragrances
  • Postnasal drip
  • Asthma
  • Dry air or dry heated air
  • Gastric reflux

A dry cough that is being caused by nonallergic rhinitis (like with dry, heated air) will generally happen when you turn your furnace on for the first time in the fall because this releases any dust and other irritants that have built up in the furnace during the months when it was not being used.

When a dry cough is being caused by gastric reflux, you will likely notice that it is accompanied by other symptoms like heartburn, a burning sensation in your throat, or increased saliva production.

If a cold or flu is the culprit, the cough will probably not be your only symptom. You may also experience headaches, a runny or stuffy nose, a sore throat, fever, or fatigue, and these other symptoms are the key to being able to determine whether your cough is being caused by illness or something else altogether.

Is it a Cold, the Flu, or Just Allergies? How To Tell the Difference

The common cold, the flu, and seasonal allergies are the three most common causes of a cough, and because they share some symptoms, it can be difficult to know the difference.

That said, being able to differentiate between these three culprits is essential when it comes to deciding on a treatment method because allergies are treated differently than is the flu or a cold.

Below are the defining symptoms of each of these causes and how you can differentiate them.


The symptoms caused by allergies can range from very mild to severe, and they may be year-round or only seasonal. Allergies can cause symptoms like dry cough and wheezing, especially in people with asthma, but can also be easily treated with antihistamines. A cold or the flu, on the other hand, will not respond to allergy medicine or antihistamines.

Common symptoms of allergies include sneezing, a runny nose, itchy and watery eyes, itchy nose or ears, and postnasal drip. Itchy eyes or an itchy nose are telltale signs that allergies are what is causing your discomfort, so if these symptoms present themselves, it just might be from allergies.

Common Cold

The most common symptoms of a cold include a sore throat, dry cough, sneezing, a runny or stuffy nose, and mild body aches. That said, a cold does not have any distinctive symptoms, but you can tell it apart from allergies or the flu based on symptoms that are generally not caused by a cold.

For example, if you have a runny or stuffy nose alongside itchy eyes, you are most likely just dealing with allergies. On the other hand, if your runny or stuffy nose and sore throat are accompanied by a fever, chills, and body aches, you are quite possibly suffering from the flu.

A cold can sometimes cause body aches, headaches, and a fever, but these are not very common symptoms, and if they occur at the same time it is a good idea to play it safe and consult a medical provider.

The Flu

Knowing the difference between a cold and the flu can be very difficult because these two forms of illness share most of their symptoms like a runny nose, congestion, sore throat, dry cough, and ,headaches, and sometimes a fever.

That said, the flu almost always causes body aches, chills, and a fever, whereas these are only occasional symptoms of a cold. Thus, if you or your child develops this combination of symptoms, there is a good possibility it is the flu.

If you suspect that you or your child have the flu, it is a good idea to consult your medical provider so that you can get some guidance as to treatment. The flu can cause very uncomfortable symptoms and has the potential to lead to further complications, so consulting your medical provider early is always recommended!

Home Remedies for a Dry Cough

When it comes to treating a dry cough and easing your discomfort, there are plenty of home remedies that you can try out!

Keep in mind, though, that these remedies will have varied results depending on the cause of your symptoms, and if your symptoms do not respond to home remedies or even over-the-counter medicines, you should call your medical provider to make sure nothing more serious is going on.

Common home remedies for a cough include:

Drinking plenty of fluids: Making sure to drink plenty of fluids helps you stay hydrated, and can help soothe an irritated throat, thus working to ease a dry cough.

Lemon and honey: Adding lemon and honey to a cup of warm water or a cup of your favorite tea is a great way to ease a dry, nagging cough. Plus, raw honey has awesome antibacterial properties. PLEASE NOTE: Infants younger than the age of 1 should not be given honey due to the risk of botulism.

Elevating your head: Elevating your head at night before you go to sleep can help ease a dry cough. For this method, just use an extra pillow or two to keep your head and chest elevated. Keep in mind that infants under the age of 2 should not have pillows, blankets, loose bedding due to the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

Adding moisture to the air: Adding moisture to the air can help ease a cough because dry air tends to aggravate symptoms and further irritate your airways. Using a humidifier or vaporizer is a great way to add moisture to the air and soothe an irritated throat. Another way to approach this method is to run a hot shower and then sit in the steam -- in fact, this is a great way to stop a coughing fit. It is essential, however, to keep your humidifier clean, as dirty humidifiers can harbor bacteria.

The Bottom Line

A dry cough, though it can be pesky and highly uncomfortable, it can typically be easily treated with home remedies.

The common cold, the flu, and seasonal allergies are all common culprits for a dry cough, and you may be able to treat your symptoms right at home by drinking plenty of water, trying some tea with honey and lemon, or sitting in the steam from a shower.

If any medicine is necessary, certain OTC cough and cold medicine or allergy medicine may relieve your symptoms. When in doubt, call your medical provider to get a professional opinion and additional guidance as to the cause of your discomfort and how to treat it.


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