What Is a Dry Cough?

A dry cough is a common symptom of lung-related medical conditions. Dry cough symptoms occur when the body attempts to clear the lungs and airways of mucus, but nothing comes out after coughing. Dry cough is often considered to be a sign of an underlying health condition.

In the early stages of lung cancer or malignant mesothelioma, doctors may mistake a recurring dry cough as bronchitis or pneumonia. Coughs are one of the most common reasons for a doctor visit but often have benign causes. Cancer patients may also experience dry cough symptoms as a result of treatment side effects.

As symptoms worsen, however, lung cancer patients may already be in an advanced stage. For patients who have a chronic, dry cough, better outcomes result from earlier detection. Many lung cancer or mesothelioma patients experience dry cough symptoms a few months before being diagnosed.

Dry Cough Signs and Symptoms

A dry cough often begins with a tickling sensation in the throat. As the patient feels the need to clear their throat, they forcefully expect air. Over a short time, the throat may become irritated and dry. After a few weeks of unproductive coughs, lungs and chest muscles may become strained and result in chest pain and tightness. Patients experiencing chest tightness may feel pressure or weight on their chest. Persistent tightness or unexplained chest pain may require emergency medical care.

Cancer patients may experience other symptoms alongside a dry cough, including:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Coughing up blood
  • A cough that interferes with sleep patterns
  • Pneumonia
  • Bronchitis
  • Muscle weakness

At least 50 percent of lung cancer patients experience a cough. The percentage increases as the disease spread to other parts of the body. Dry cough symptoms may worsen in later stages of lung cancer.

What Causes Dry Cough?

A dry cough can be caused by various reasons, including cigarette smoke, allergies, environmental irritants, asthma, or a common cold. Someone with asthma or bronchitis can experience a dry cough if their airways become swollen. 

Certain lung-related diseases like asbestosis or mesothelioma can cause dry cough when the lining of the lungs, called the pleura, begins to thicken and put pressure on the lungs. Dry cough, shortness of breath, and chest pain can occur when the pleura presses inward on the lungs.

Mesothelioma patients can experience dry cough from other causes. As pleural tumors grow in size, they can damage nearby nerves and trigger a dry cough. Likewise, the buildup of fluid around the lungs, called pleural effusion, can also cause dry cough.

Patients with lung cancer or mesothelioma are at a slightly heightened risk for developing chest infections that cause dry cough, including pneumonia. Cancer treatments such as surgery and radiation therapy can produce or worsen the dry cough.

Treatment For Dry Coughing

Dry cough symptoms in cancer patients are often treated with palliate care to reduce pain. Medications, home remedies, and medical procedures can help control dry cough. A doctor may prescribe an over-the-counter medicine to suppress the cough. Patients can take certain prescription pain killers or steroids to control the pain.

Palliative procedures include the draining of fluid buildup to rely pressure on the lungs. Cancer patients can benefit from complementary therapies, including acupuncture, yoga, meditation, and aromatherapy. 

At-home dry cough remedies include:

  • Cough drops
  • Menthol drops
  • Using a humidifier
  • Drinking warm fluids, such as herbal teas

Cancer patients can find temporary relief from dry cough symptoms by laying in certain positions that make breathing easier, avoiding environmental irritants, and avoiding smoking. Smoke, strong smells, and environmental irritants can trigger a cough. Some dry cough triggers also cause lung cancer or other serious diseases. Cancer patients may find relief in purchasing scent-free items and wearing a mask or face covering when near smoke and other environmental irritants.

FAQs

What is the difference between a dry cough and a wet cough?

Wet coughs often stem from illnesses that affect the respiratory system, creating excess mucus. A wet cough helps the body clear the lungs and airways of yellow or white phlegm (mucus) by producing a productive cough. A dry cough is an unproductive cough that does not open the lungs or airways to expel mucus.

Will a dry cough go away on its own?

Often, dry coughs occur in non-life-threatening instances. Coughs that last longer than a week, however, should be checked out by a doctor.

How can I tell if my dry cough is a sign of lung cancer?

A person with a dry cough may experience early symptoms of lung cancer if combined with other warning signs, including coughing up blood, shortness of breath, chest pain, hoarseness, unexplained weight loss, and repeated respiratory infections.