Only symptom is cough

3. Upper airway cough syndrome

Sometimes your nose and sinuses get over-enthusiastic with the mucus production, like if you have hay fever or a sinus infection. That excess mucus can drip down the back of your throat in a phenomenon known as upper airway cough syndrome, the Mayo Clinic says. This is sometimes called post-nasal drip and, unsurprisingly, it might trigger you to cough.

There’s still a lot of uncertainty surrounding how doctors diagnose this condition (and some don’t even consider it a condition in the first place). That doesn’t really help if you’re constantly swallowing mucus, though. See a doctor who can try to find and treat the cause of your excessive mucus production.

4. Acute bronchitis

As if having a cold or other respiratory infection isn’t grueling enough, sometimes it can turn into acute bronchitis, also known as a chest cold. Acute bronchitis involves inflammation of the bronchial tubes that transport air to and from your lungs, according to the Mayo Clinic. This inflammation can force you to cough regularly to try to get irritants and mucus out of there, Dr. DePietro explains. It can also cause your airways to narrow and swell, making it tough to breathe, he says.

Acute bronchitis typically gets better in 10 or fewer days. Unfortunately, the cough can stick around for weeks, according to the Mayo Clinic.

5. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

This is an umbrella term for long-term lung diseases including chronic bronchitis and emphysema. “Chronic bronchitis is notorious for causing a chronic cough,” Dr. Hoyte says. If you have this condition, you’ll experience relentless airway irritation that causes a mucus-producing cough for at least three months, with recurring attacks for at least two years. When chronic bronchitis suddenly gets worse, it could be because you have an infection that causes acute bronchitis on top of the chronic form.

Should I Be Worried About My Dry Cough?

It’s normal to cough when something tickles your throat or a piece of food “goes down the wrong pipe.” After all, coughing is your body’s way of clearing your throat and airways of mucus, fluids, irritants, or microbes. A dry cough, a cough that doesn’t help to expel any of these, is less common.

A dry, hacking cough can be irritating. But it could also be a sign of something more serious, such as chronic lung disease. If you’ve got a persistent dry cough, here are a few reasons why you should get it checked out by a doctor.

It’s more than a chronic cough

A cough can signal a number of things happening in your body, especially if it doesn’t go away. In fact, a cough is the most common reason people visit their primary care physicians, according to Cleveland Clinic. Chronic cough, a cough that lasts more than eight weeks, may seem worrisome. But it can actually be quite common and may be caused by:

  • allergies
  • asthma
  • bronchitis
  • gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • postnasal drip
  • therapy with angiotensin-converting-enzyme inhibitors

In nonsmokers, these are the causes for chronic coughs in nine out of 10 patients, according to Harvard Health. But paired with other symptoms, chronic dry cough can be the result of a larger, more serious problem including:

  • lung infection
  • lung cancer
  • acute sinusitis
  • chronic sinusitis
  • bronchiolitis
  • cystic fibrosis
  • emphysema
  • laryngitis
  • pertussis (whooping cough)
  • COPD
  • heart failure
  • croup
  • tuberculosis
  • idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF)

If you currently smoke cigarettes or used to smoke, you have an increased risk of developing a chronic dry cough, according to the American Lung Association. Given the long list of reasons that can cause a dry cough, it’s safe to say that it alone isn’t enough to diagnose a larger problem. Your doctor will most likely need to do further evaluation and testing to understand the root cause before recommending treatment options.

When to see a doctor

A persistent dry cough can be a sign of something more serious when you start experiencing other symptoms. Chronic lung diseases like IPF, lung cancer, and heart failure can worsen quickly if left untreated. You should see a doctor right away if your dry cough is accompanied by the following symptoms:

  • shortness of breath
  • high or prolonged fever
  • choking
  • coughing up blood or bloody phlegm
  • weakness, fatigue
  • appetite loss
  • wheezing
  • chest pain when you’re not coughing
  • night sweats
  • worsening leg swelling

Often, it’s the combination of one or more of these symptoms along with dry cough that can be alarming, say experts, but it’s important not to jump to conclusions until a full workup has been done.

“A persistent dry cough is one common symptom of IPF. There are usually other symptoms of IPF as well, such as shortness of breath and a Velcro-like crackle in the lungs a doctor can hear through a stethoscope,” says Dr. Steven Nathan, medical director of the Advanced Lung Disease and Transplant Program at Inova Fairfax Hospital.

“However, physicians generally try to rule out more common conditions causing a cough, such as postnasal drip, GERD, or a hyperactive airway. Once a physician determines a more common condition isn’t the issue and patients aren’t responding to therapies, then a physician focuses on more uncommon diagnoses, such as IPF.”

Testing and evaluation

Depending on what other symptoms you have, your doctor may order a number of tests to help diagnose the cause of your dry cough. After conducting a physical exam, your doctor will ask you some questions about your dry cough like when it started, if you notice any triggers, or if you have any medical illnesses. Some tests your doctor may order include:

  • chest X-ray
  • blood sample
  • CT scan of your chest
  • throat swab
  • phlegm sample
  • spirometry
  • methacholine challenge test

Some of these will help your doctor get a closer look inside your chest as well and test your bodily fluids to check for infections or other health issues. Others will test for how well you can breathe. If these still aren’t enough to pinpoint an issue, you may be referred to a pulmonologist, a doctor who specializes in lung and respiratory diseases, who may order more tests.

Treatment options

A number of over-the-counter medications and natural remedies are available for you to try to find temporary relief from dry cough. But because cough is almost always a symptom of a larger problem, it’s important to remember that these solutions aren’t likely to make the cough go away. Based on any diagnosis your doctor makes after your visit, they will recommend treatment options accordingly.

In the meantime, you can try the following, recommended by the American Lung Association, to help ease your chronic cough:

  • cough drops or hard candy
  • honey
  • vaporizer
  • steamy shower

Long-term risks of dry cough

A chronic dry cough can pose a threat to your overall health if it’s not treated. It can make any current conditions like IPF worse by scarring your lung tissue even more. It can also make your daily life more difficult and cause discomfort and potentially damage.

“No current evidence exists to suggest a dry cough is damaging. However, some physicians think it could be damaging due to the tremendous force and pressure to the airway that a cough generates,” says Dr. Nathan.

The American Lung Association outlines some risks you may face with a chronic dry cough:

  • exhaustion and decreased energy
  • headaches, nausea, vomiting
  • chest and muscle aches
  • sore throat and hoarseness
  • broken ribs
  • incontinence

If the problem is severe, you may even find yourself avoiding social situations, which can lead to anxiety, frustration, and even depression. Persistent dry cough may not always be a sign of something life-threatening, but it can be harmful. As such, it’s important to address it quickly.

Interpreting Your Mystery Cough

Not all coughs are alike. While that tickle in your throat can often be treated at home with over-the-counter cold medication coupled with Mom’s advice to rest up and drink lots of fluids, sometimes a cough is a sign of something more serious than a cold.

Cough Symptoms: When to See a Doctor

A cough is a natural effort by your body to clear your airways. The best way to treat any cough is to treat the cause. For example, if you have pneumonia, antibiotics will help, and if your cough is part of an allergy, you could treat the allergy or avoid the trigger.

Unfortunately, many coughs are related to viral infections. You can treat them with over-the-counter medications, but you are probably looking at about a week of aggravation before your cough subsides.

“When more mucous membranes are involved — your nose and throat, and you’re coughing — then it’s viral and it will take longer to get better,” says Richard Streiffer, MD, professor and chair of the department of family and community medicine at the Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans. If you have a virus, there isn’t much you can do besides treat the symptoms and take it easy.

On the other hand, if you have only one or two significant symptoms, you may have something to take to your doctor. For example, if you have a very sore throat and not much else, you might have strep throat. Likewise, if your cough is your primary concern, it could be worth a visit to the doctor. Make an immediate call to your doctor if:

  • Your cough is accompanied by other symptoms such as chest pain, wheezing, or shortness of breath.
  • You’re coughing up blood or bloody-looking mucus in any quantity.
  • You’re coughing up yellow or green mucus.
  • You have a fever of 101 or higher.
  • You’re getting worse when you should be getting better. “Some people may have a cold and then five or six days into it get worse with fever they didn’t have at the beginning or increased mucus production,” explains Dr. Streiffer.
  • You’ve had unplanned weight loss.
  • You’re soaking the sheets with night sweats.

When a Cough Sticks Around

One reason to take your cough to the doctor is if it lasts too long.

“You expect people to be getting better in seven to 10 days,” says Streiffer. This is called an acute cough. A cough that sticks around one to two months — a subacute cough — is likely to be an unresolved respiratory infection, such as pneumonia. A cough that lingers past eight weeks is considered a chronic cough and could be related to:

  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Asthma
  • Post-nasal drip
  • Allergies
  • Smoking
  • Bronchitis
  • Bronchiectasis, or damage to airways due to infection
  • Lung cancer (rare)
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Certain medications you take, such as ACE inhibitors or beta blockers

An ongoing cough can interfere with sleep, mood, and daily activities. Getting to the bottom of the cause of your chronic cough or a cough that is accompanied by more worrisome symptoms, such as blood, will help you rest easier physically and emotionally.

Should I see a doctor about my cough?

Below, we discuss several possible causes of a cough, as well as the other symptoms they may cause.

The common cold

A common cold is one of the most common causes of an acute cough. Colds are the result of a respiratory virus, the most common being rhinovirus. Other symptoms of a cold can include:

  • sore throat
  • sneezing
  • headache
  • body aches
  • runny nose

It is not necessary to see a doctor for a cold, as the symptoms will usually go away on their own within a few days.

However, it is important to see a doctor if symptoms persist for longer than 10 days or become severe.


Bronchitis occurs when the airways in the lungs become inflamed. Acute bronchitis lasts for a few days or weeks, but chronic bronchitis can persist for months.

Both types of bronchitis cause a cough that brings some mucus up with it. Other symptoms of bronchitis include:

  • sore throat
  • headache
  • runny or stuffy nose
  • body aches
  • fatigue

It is possible to treat most cases of acute bronchitis at home with rest and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen.

Symptoms that last for longer than a couple of weeks could indicate chronic bronchitis, and this will require a trip to the doctor.


Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs. It causes the small air sacs in the lung, or alveoli, to become inflamed and fill with fluid. This makes it harder for the lungs to transfer oxygen to the bloodstream.

Pneumonia can cause a cough that brings up mucus. It may also lead to:

  • fever
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain
  • loss of appetite
  • nausea and vomiting
  • confusion

People with pneumonia should see a doctor for treatment. The condition can become severe in older people and may require hospitalization.


Share on PinterestA doctor can help find the right treatment for asthma.

Asthma is a chronic lung disease that makes it harder to breathe. In some people, certain triggers can bring on bouts of asthma, such as exposure to irritants in the environment. It can cause frequent coughing, especially at night.

Other symptoms of asthma include:

  • wheezing
  • shortness of breath
  • chest tightness

It is important to see a doctor about asthma. They can help a person find the right treatment and identify any triggers of the condition.


Allergies occur as a result of the immune system overreacting to a harmless substance, such as pollen or dust. Coming into contact with these substances can cause a range of symptoms, including:

  • sneezing
  • stuffy or runny nose
  • itching
  • skin rashes
  • sore eyes
  • coughing

In the most severe cases, allergies can cause anaphylaxis, which is the rapid and simultaneous onset of several symptoms. Anaphylaxis can quickly become severe and requires immediate medical attention.

In most cases, allergies do not have a cure. The most effective way to deal with an allergy is to avoid triggers.

Gastroesophageal reflux disease

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a chronic condition wherein stomach acid reaches the esophagus, which is the tube that carries food and liquids from the mouth to the stomach.

The most common symptom is heartburn, or a burning sensation in the throat that can get worse when lying down. Other symptoms of GERD include:

  • coughing
  • nausea
  • bad breath
  • chest pain
  • problems swallowing
  • breathing difficulties
  • vomiting

There is no cure for GERD, but a doctor can make lifestyle recommendations that may help control symptoms. There are also medications available that can reduce discomfort.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a type of lung disease that affects breathing. Smoking tobacco is the main cause of COPD.

People with COPD can develop other conditions that worsen their symptoms, such as obstructive bronchiolitis or emphysema.

Breathing difficulties, including shortness of breath and difficulty exhaling, are the main symptoms of COPD.

Other symptoms may include:

  • frequent coughing
  • wheezing
  • excess mucus

It is vital to see a doctor about COPD. Treatment will primarily involve giving up smoking and avoiding exposure to smoke or other irritants.

In more serious cases, an oxygen tank may be necessary to help support the lungs.

Dry Cough & Mesothelioma

What Is a Dry Cough?

Coughing is a common symptom caused by many conditions. It is a reflex that keeps your throat and airways clear.

An occasional cough is normal. But a recurring cough may be a sign of an underlying health condition.

In the early stages of pleural mesothelioma, symptoms such as dry cough can easily be mistaken as a less serious condition. Doctors may misdiagnose a recurring cough, trouble breathing or chest pain as a chest infection such as bronchitis or pneumonia.

Dry Cough and Mesothelioma Facts

  • Very common symptom and treatment side effect
  • Usually worsens as the cancer spreads
  • Palliative treatment can ease dry cough and wheezing
  • Trying different positions and avoiding coughing triggers may help

While dry cough is an initial warning sign of pleural mesothelioma, it cannot diagnose the cancer alone. If you have a history of asbestos exposure and develop a consistent or worsening dry cough, tell your doctor about your exposure history.

Some people with mesothelioma experience symptoms such as dry cough for at least a few months before they are diagnosed. Unfortunately, these symptoms develop after the cancer has reached a later stage of development when treatment isn’t as effective.

Patients diagnosed in the early stages of mesothelioma typically have more treatment options and a better chance at long-term survival.

What Causes Dry Cough for Mesothelioma Patients?

When mesothelioma develops on the pleura (the lining of the lungs), it causes it to thicken and press inward on the lung. This pressure may cause dry cough, shortness of breath and chest pain.

Tumors may also damage the nerves that connect to the pleura, triggering coughing. Pleural effusion, or the buildup of fluid around the lung, is also known to cause coughing in some patients.

People with pleural mesothelioma are more likely to get chest infections such as pneumonia. Dry cough is a common symptom of pneumonia.

Repeated coughing causes irritation and inflammation of the airways, which makes coughing even worse and more frequent.

Coughing from Mesothelioma Treatment

Mesothelioma treatments such as radiation therapy can temporarily intensify symptoms, including shortness of breath and coughing.

Aggressive surgeries may cause short-term risks that can increase and worsen dry cough. These risks include pneumonia, fluid accumulation in the lungs and pus accumulation in the pleural space.

Patients with peritoneal mesothelioma typically don’t experience dry cough unless the cancer spreads from the abdomen to the chest cavity.

Treating Dry Cough Related to Mesothelioma

Dry cough caused by mesothelioma or cancer treatment can be controlled by medications, home remedies or medical procedures. The right treatment for dry cough depends on the suspected cause of the symptom.


Aggressive surgical options aim to remove as much tumor growth as possible. This can ease symptoms such as shortness of breath and dry cough. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy can also decrease coughing.

Palliative Procedures

Draining fluid buildup from the pleural lining can relieve pressure on the lungs and ease symptoms such as dry cough and wheezing.

Cough Remedies

Some mesothelioma patients have found relief from dry cough using the following at-home remedies.

  • Using menthol drops or other cough drops
  • Drinking hot water with lemon juice and honey
  • Drinking herbal teas known for cough suppression such as marshmallow root, ginger root, slippery elm bark, thyme leaves and peppermint leaves
  • Using a humidifier at home
  • Gargling warm water mixed with a half teaspoon of salt

Changing Positions

Sitting or lying in certain positions can make breathing more difficult and increase coughing. Try sitting or sleeping in different positions, including propped up with more pillows or lying on a particular side.

Avoid Coughing Triggers

Certain environmental factors or products can trigger a cough. These include smoke, cold air, aerosol sprays and strong fragrances. Pay attention to what triggers your cough and try to avoid those situations.

Staying clear of smoky environments, using scent-free soaps, wearing a scarf on cold days and using solid deodorants instead of aerosol antiperspirants are a few ways to avoid coughing triggers.


Over-the-counter medicines and prescription drugs may help ease your cough. Suppressants such as Robitussin (dextromethorphan) can cut the number of times you cough.

Some patients with a lung infection or chest cold cough more because it is hard for them to bring up phlegm. Expectorants such as Mucinex (guaifenesin) help thin mucus, making it easier to cough up. This is helpful for wet coughing rather than dry coughing.

Certain prescription pain killers and steroids may also control a recurring cough. A nebulizer, which delivers medication in the form of a mist inhaled into the lungs, can help.

Complementary Therapies

Complementary therapies help ease the effects of mesothelioma symptoms on the mind and body. Acupressure, acupuncture and aromatherapy can help manage dry cough. Mind-body therapies, such as yoga and meditation, help control breathing, which may reduce the amount a patient coughs.

Emotional Effects of Dry Cough

A persistent dry cough can cause frustration, anxiety and even depression in some patients with mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma patients and their caregivers can speak to their doctors and nurses about ways to minimize persistent dry cough and the emotional and social effects that come with it.

Daily Tasks and Chores

Uncontrollable coughing makes it hard to manage daily tasks such as bathing, cooking or household chores. It can make it difficult to sleep, which leads to fatigue. It can also increase other mesothelioma symptoms such as chest pain.

Social Anxiety

Mesothelioma patients with a chronic cough may not feel comfortable in social settings. They may feel embarrassed about their coughing and avoid public places such as restaurants, movie theaters and grocery stores.

The fear of coughing in public venues makes it hard to pursue hobbies and other activities you enjoy. Talking to family members or friends in person or on the phone may be difficult since coughing interrupts conversations. This can cause a patient to feel isolated from loved ones and their support system.

Reminder of the Illness

Constant coughing also acts as a reminder of a patient’s cancer, which can lead to fear and anxiety. It can act as an outward sign of illness to others, making it difficult for those who want to keep their diagnosis private.

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Karen Selby, RN

Registered Nurse and Patient Advocate

Karen Selby joined in 2009. She is a registered nurse with a background in oncology and thoracic surgery and was the regional director of a tissue bank before becoming a Patient Advocate at The Mesothelioma Center. Karen has assisted surgeons with thoracic surgeries such as lung resections, lung transplants, pneumonectomies, pleurectomies and wedge resections. She is also a member of the Academy of Oncology Nurse & Patient Navigators.

Edited by Walter PachecoMedical Review By Dr. Sanjay R. Jain

4 Cited Article Sources

The sources on all content featured in The Mesothelioma Center at include medical and scientific studies, peer-reviewed studies and other research documents from reputable organizations.

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