What is a Dry Cough? Experts Explain the Coronavirus Symptom
You've heard the typical symptoms by now: fever, shortness of breath, dry cough—about 80 percent of those with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), only get those mild signs, according to research. And while one of those symptoms—a cough—may sound pretty easy to diagnose, many are questioning what exactly a dry cough is, and how it's different from other coughs.
Basically, a dry cough is "one where no mucus or phlegm is produced with the cough," Subinoy Das, MD an Ohio-based ear nose and throat physician, and medical director for the US Institute for Advanced Sinus Care & Research, tells Health. Conversely, a wet cough "is one filled with mucus or phlegm where someone can actually feel the mucus move in their bronchi or throat," he says, adding that "mucus expectorates or leaves the chest with each [wet] cough."
A dry cough may also sound different than a wet cough. "It has a very consistent sound," says Dr. Das—often triggered by a tickle in the back of your throat, with a barking or hoarse sound. That's because "the airway is not constantly changing with the cough," says Dr. Das. (With a wet cough, mucus builds up, then leaves, constantly changing the airways.) He explains that, while dry coughs don't necessarily hurt, they are “unsatisfying coughs, because no mucus or phlegm is expelled past the vocal cords.” Still, the coughing can get so hard that the person can possibly injure their ribs or intercostal muscles (the muscles that run between the ribs).
It's important to remember, however, that dry coughs can be a symptom of a variety of other illnesses—not just COVID-19—including, allergies, asthma, bronchitis, or a typical common cold, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. However, Dr. Das explains that if you have any other symptoms related to COVID-19, like a fever, unexplained loss of taste or smell, or gastrointestinal issues like diarrhea, you should call your doctor to inquire about getting tested for coronavirus.
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests cough medicine, humidifiers, and cough drops to ease the discomfort of a flu-related dry cough, Dr. Das points out that currently, there are no medically proven ways to reduce a dry cough from COVID-19, but those with symptoms can use the above remedies to help relieve them, as well. Dr. Das also recommends taking steamy showers, “which helps thin the mucus building up in the nose or nasopharynx that could possibly be worsening a patient’s cough.” And if you do test positive for coronavirus, or if you believe you have it, it's necessary to self-isolate so you don't make those around you ill, as well.
The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.
To get our top stories delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Healthy Living newsletter