Dry cough

Coughs tend to fall into one of two categories, either ‘dry’ (non-productive) or chesty (productive). In dry coughs a patient will cough without expelling any mucus or phlegm.

Very often patients experience an uncomfortable tickling in the throat which stimulates the actual coughing attacks.

What causes a dry cough?

Most coughs are described as acute meaning that they appear suddenly and normally do not last longer than two to three weeks. They are often due to a cold, flu or sinus infection.

A dry cough often occurs at the end of these infections or after a person has been exposed to an irritant of some kind such as smoke, dust or chemical fumes. Smoking cigarettes, allergies and asthma are also common causes of coughs.

In some cases a cough can be a symptom of a more serious condition.

These include:

  • Lung infections like pneumonia or acute bronchitis (may start suddenly but then linger on).
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (emphysema or chronic bronchitis).
  • Sinusitis.

It is therefore very important that you visit your GP if you have a cough that persists for longer than two weeks.

For most people a cough will pass quickly and can be treated by a number of products available at your local community pharmacy.

There are a wide range of remedies available for dry coughs. Many of these contain a cough suppressant which reduces the cough reflex.

Some common cough suppressants include pholcodine and dextromethorphan. These can be found in many cough remedies that combine a number of active ingredients to alleviate different symptoms.

Glycerine, honey and lemon are also considered cough suppressants. These work by coating the throat, reducing irritation and the tickling sensation common to dry coughs.

Some cough remedies also contain substances known as decongestants such as pseudoephedrine.

These relax the airway and have decongestant effects, they can be useful if you have a blocked nose as well as a cough.

In certain cases e.g. if your congestion is associated with allergies it may be appropriate to use an antihistamine. Antihistamines can dry up nasal secretions and reduce coughing by reducing the effects of an itchy nose and throat.
Your pharmacist can help you identify the particular remedy that most suites your symptoms so do ask for his or her advice when selecting a cough remedy.

Be aware that in some cases, the ingredients in cough remedies can interact with other medicines so you should always mention any medicine you are taking to your pharmacist when purchasing a remedy.

You should also never use a cough remedy for longer than two weeks and if you have a cough that persists you should visit your GP.


The information provided on this website does not replace medical advice.

If you want to find out more, or are worried about any medical issue or symptoms that you may be experiencing, please contact our pharmacist or see your doctor.

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