Why do we cough?
Coughing is commonly associated with illnesses like colds and flu. However, it is important for you to understand that coughing isn’t inherently bad. Instead, you should keep in mind that this reflex is actually your body’s way of expelling irritants to avoid more serious medical issues.
Before you feel the urge to cough, the nerves in your throat send a message to the central nervous system, warning it about irritants in your airways. In response, the brain signals the abdominal and chest muscles to breathe deeply and rapidly — at a speed of roughly 80 kilometers per hour — to remove any particles from your throat and lungs.
Medical experts consider coughing as a key symptom for several medical conditions. To determine whether your dry cough is serious, you must first understand the different types of cough and the most common conditions that may have caused it.
Different Types of Cough Explained
Coughs can be classified based on several characteristics. This includes the cough’s duration (how long it lasts), its unique features (whether it produces phlegm or not), and the symptoms that come with it (like sneezing and sore throat).
Chronic vs. Acute Cough
Chronic coughs last longer than eight weeks while acute ones only occur in three weeks or less. An acute cough also shows signs of improvement between days three and five from the onset.
Dry (non-productive) and wet (productive) cough
Dry cough, also called non-productive cough, is dubbed as such because it does not produce any phlegm. If caused by a respiratory tract infection, dry cough occurs during the early stages of the condition.
A wet or productive cough, on the other hand, triggers mucus production during the latter part of the infection and may come with inflammation spreading along the lower respiratory tract. Sometimes, it also causes mucus to back up from the lungs, nose, sinus, or the back of the throat.
Seasonal and Nighttime Cough
A seasonal cough often occurs during changes in season. It comes as a symptom of ailments like influenza which typically occur around December or during the cold season.
As the name implies, nighttime cough occurs when a person is sleeping or is just about to sleep. This type of cough may also be caused by chronic ailments like asthma and gastroesophageal acid reflux disease or GERD.
4 Common Causes of Dry Cough
Sometimes, it can be difficult to pinpoint the specific cause of dry cough because of the array of symptoms (or lack thereof) that come with it. Even so, it is important that you know the potential medical issues you may have, especially if you are experiencing long-lasting non-productive cough.
Here are the four most common conditions that typically cause dry cough:
Dry cough often occurs when a person gets infected with a virus that causes common colds. Other symptoms that go with it include sneezing, sore throat, fever, mild headaches, and pain in other parts of the body.
In some cases, dry cough may linger even after all the other symptoms have passed. For these rare occurrences, your cough may be caused by the irritation of your airways after the viral infection caused your throat to become quite sensitive. However, coughing too much can be bad in this scenario, so make sure to take warm liquids and lozenges to soothe your throat and prevent the cough from getting worse.
Asthma is a chronic ailment where the airways become narrow from swelling. While it causes both dry and wet cough, more cases lead to the former. Other symptoms of this condition are wheezing, chest pain, shortness of breath, and whistling that occurs when exhaling.
This condition, while expected to last longer, can be treated with either maintenance medications or short-acting treatment like bronchodilator inhalers. However, getting rid of asthma may require a combination of both.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
When you experience dry cough, there is a high probability that it is related to a problem in the airways. However, there are certain cases wherein your nonproductive cough is a result of digestive ailments, like gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD.
GERD is a condition wherein the stomach suddenly produces too much acid and causes reflux that reaches and irritates the esophagus. Remember that coughing is your body’s way of expelling irritants, and stomach acid can definitely irritate your throat as much as any other foreign particle can.
To know whether your dry cough is caused by acid reflux disease, check if you have any of the following symptoms:
- Chest pain
- Regurgitation of sour fluid or food
- Difficulty swallowing
- Chronic sore throat
- Mild hoarseness of the throat
- Feeling like something is stuck at the back of your throat
This condition is treatable, of course. Medical professionals often recommend changing one’s lifestyle and using quick-acting over-the-counter medications to ease acid reflux.
Dry cough may also be caused by excess mucus that drips down your throat from your nose, a condition called postnasal drip. This often occurs when you experience seasonal allergies that cause the overproduction of mucus which causes runny nose. It can also be due to an infection, either viral or bacterial.
Since this is unhealthy mucus, it comes in watery form which can easily trickle down your throat. Aside from runny nose, other symptoms that emerge when you experience postnasal drip include difficulty swallowing, sore throat, nighttime cough, and that uncomfortable feeling that something is stuck at the back of your throat.
When to See the Doctor
Dry cough can range from being uncomfortable to life-threatening, depending on its underlying cause. While most cases only require simple medication, others may entail life-long treatment and close medical attention. To be sure, see a doctor about your cough when you see streaks of blood in your mucus, experience trouble breathing, or have a serious lung condition like cystic fibrosis or asthma.