Dry Cough and Chest Tightness
What is a dry cough?
A dry cough doesn’t produce mucus. Because there isn’t mucus blocking the lungs or airways, nothing comes out when you cough. This lack of mucus (phlegm) makes it an unproductive cough.
What’s the difference between a dry cough and a wet cough?
A cough is your body’s way of clearing the lungs and airways of irritants so you can breathe better.
When you have an illness that affects your respiratory system, you may cough up mucus. This is a wet cough. Healthcare providers consider a wet cough to be productive because it clears phlegm (mucus) from the lungs and airways. If too much phlegm builds up in the lungs, you may become short of breath and develop other problems.
When you have a dry cough, nothing comes up. This unproductive cough doesn’t open up the lungs or air passages.
What are the symptoms of a dry cough?
With a dry cough, you may feel a tickling sensation in your throat. You may try to clear your throat by coughing. As you forcefully expel air, your throat can become irritated and dry. You may develop a sore throat.
Why does my chest hurt when I cough?
When you have an unproductive dry cough, you essentially cough up air. A dry cough that is very vigorous or lasts longer than three weeks (chronic cough) can strain your lungs or chest muscles. You may develop chest pain with the cough.
Most people have a feeling of chest tightness with a dry cough. You may feel a squeezing sensation in the chest or pressure, like there’s a weight on your chest.
Sudden, unexplained chest pain can be a sign of a heart attack. You should seek immediate medical care.
Do colds, flu and COVID-19 cause a dry cough?
It can take a while for inflammation from respiratory infections to go away. During this time, the lungs and airways may be extra sensitive to inhaled irritants. This sensitivity can make your throat more ticklish, causing you to cough.
Most people who get sick with COVID-19 have dry coughs — not wet coughs like with the cold or flu. However, wet coughs can also happen with COVID-19 infections. Your healthcare provider may recommend a COVID-19 test to identify the cause of the cough.
What other conditions cause dry coughs?
Other conditions that cause dry coughs include:
- Allergies, asthma or exposure to chemicals and irritants.
- Croup (in children).
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or laryngopharyngeal reflux.
- Side effects of medications, such as those that treat high blood pressure.
- Postnasal drip (upper airway cough syndrome).
- Vocal cord dysfunction.
- Whooping cough (pertussis).
Can a dry cough be a sign of a more serious problem?
Rarely, a dry cough indicates a more serious, potentially life-threatening health problem. You should see your healthcare provider if you have concerns about a cough.
A chronic dry cough may be a symptom of:
Care and Treatment
How can I treat a dry cough and tight chest?
Most dry coughs clear up when you treat the underlying cause. Over-the-counter (OTC) cough medicines aren’t usually that helpful. And children younger than 4 years of age shouldn’t take any cough medicine because of the risk for serious side effects.
These at-home remedies can help:
- Drink plenty of liquids to stay hydrated. Try hot tea or water with honey and lemon to soothe irritated airways.
- Suck on cough drops or hard candies. Sucking on a hard lozenge promotes saliva production that soothes the throat. But don’t give cough drops or hard candies to children under 4. They can choke.
- Take a spoonful of honey. Studies show that honey stops coughs as well as (or better than) most OTC cough medicines. Your healthcare provider can recommend the right amount of honey based on the ill person’s age. Never give honey to a child under 1 year of age. In babies, honey can cause botulism.
- Use a humidifier. A cool-mist humidifier puts moisture into the air. This extra moisture soothes nasal passages and sore throats and eases dry coughs. You can also get more moisture by taking a steamy shower or hot bath.
How can I prevent dry cough and chest tightness?
These steps may lower your chances of having a dry cough:
When to Call the Doctor
When should I call the doctor?
You should call your healthcare provider if you experience:
- Coughing up blood.
- Difficulty breathing.
- Extreme fatigue.
- Fever and chills.
- Sudden, unexplained chest pain.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Many conditions can cause a dry cough. Often, an irritating dry cough will go away when you identify and treat the underlying condition. You can use home remedies to soothe dry coughs that develop after a respiratory illness like a cold. Coughing can inflame lungs and air passages, leading to chest tightness. This symptom should improve when the cough clears up. Rarely, a chronic dry cough indicates a more serious health problem. You should see your healthcare provider any time you have a lingering, unexplained cough.
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