What Is a COVID-19-Related Dry Cough?

Here's how it's different from other coughs you've had.

You've heard some of the COVID-19 typical symptoms by now: fever, shortness of breath, dry cough. And while one of those symptoms—a cough—may sound pretty easy to diagnose, many have questioned 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, told 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," described Dr. Das. Dr. Das added 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," explained 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," added Dr. Das. (With a wet cough, mucus builds up, then leaves, constantly changing the airways.) While dry coughs don't necessarily hurt, Dr. Das explained that 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 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 explained 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 get tested for COVID-19.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests cough medicine, humidifiers, and cough drops to ease the discomfort of a flu-related dry cough, Dr. Das pointed out that, as of April 2022, there are no medically proven ways to reduce a dry cough from COVID-19. Still, those with COVID-19-related dry cough can also use the above remedies to help relieve them. Dr. Das also recommended taking steamy showers, "which helps thin the mucus building up in the nose or nasopharynx that could possibly be worsening a patient's cough."

Just a reminder: If you do test positive for COVID-19, believe you have it, or know you've been exposed to it, you may have to quarantine 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.

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