A persistent cough can be annoying and disruptive, but it is not often a sign of serious illness unless accompanied by other symptoms. A dry cough is known as “nonproductive”; what’s called a wet cough is “productive” (i.e. mucous-producing). The most common causes of a dry cough are asthma, allergies and acid reflux—in which other symptoms may or may not be present.
Asthma, a condition in which the bronchial tubes become inflamed, usually causes wheezing, tightness in the chest and shortness of breath. But sometimes the only symptom may be a dry cough that comes and goes. Your doctor can test your lungs to see if you have asthma.
Most people assume allergies always cause telltale symptoms like watery eyes, sneezing and nasal congestion, but sometimes the only obvious sign is a dry cough. Allergies and chronic sinusitis can cause post-nasal drainage, which then causes recurrent coughing. Consult your physician about an allergy test to figure out if you are allergic to anything.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), also known as acid reflux, may be the culprit if your dry cough occurs during the night or the next morning. As you lay flat in bed, stomach acid can seep back up through a weak opening into the esophagus. When this acid touches the vocal cords or trachea, a dry cough, hoarse throat or constant throat-clearing may develop.
A dry cough is a common side effect of a type of blood pressure medication called an angiotensin-converting-enzyme (ACE) inhibitor. If your hacking coincided with the onset of your ACE drugs, talk to your doctor about switching your prescription.
The cold virus is an upper respiratory tract infection with symptoms that may include congestion, runny nose, sneezing and/or coughing. According to health-cares.net, “Coughing is usually a reflex response of the body caused by an irritation in the throat or windpipe” and sometimes this reflex will persist long after other symptoms disappear. If your cough lasts for more than two weeks, see your doctor to rule out bronchitis or pneumonia. In the meantime, relieve your throat tickle by sucking on a lozenge (sugar-free, as sugar depresses the immune system), taking a teaspoon of honey or drinking ginger tea with honey (see Resources for more remedies).
Low humidity, or moisture, in the air in your home can dry out mucous membranes, causing irritation in the throat and coughing. Investing in a humidifier to place in your bedroom at night can remedy this.
In some cases, coughing may be a symptom of lower respiratory tract disease such as tuberculosis, emphysema, pneumonia or lung cancer. Before you worry, however, keep in mind that normally other symptoms will be present as well, such as fever, sweating, fatigue, shortness of breath, pain and sudden weight loss.