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What Your Dry Cough Means and How to Treat It

A dry cough is a common symptom of respiratory infections and allergies. It doesn’t produce phlegm, but you could feel chest pain for several weeks. Find out why and how to achieve relief.

Woman coughing into her left fist.

A dry cough may tickle your throat silly, but not in a comfortable way. The ticklish sensation means your throat is irritated. It’s labelled as an “unproductive cough” because it doesn’t produce phlegm. You can also develop chest pain and tightness if the cough persists for more than three weeks. 

Read on to discover the causes and natural remedies to help alleviate the condition. 

What are the Possible Causes of a Dry Cough?

Boy holding an asthma pump with a spacer to his mouth and nose while leaning back into a sofa next to a plush toy.
Besides shortness of breath, a chronic dry cough is another common asthma symptom.

Respiratory infections often cause dry coughs. Your lungs and airways become more sensitive to irritants, which can lead to coughing bouts. Some of these respiratory disorders are: 

  • Asthma: A chronic allergic condition affecting the lungs  
  • Bronchitis: An infection of the primary lung airways  
  • Croup: A viral infection of the upper airway characterised by breathing difficulties and a bark-like cough, usually in babies and toddlers 
  • Pneumonia: Inflammation of the tissue in one or both lungs  
  • Postnasal drip: An excessive accumulation of mucus, which drips down the back of your throat  
  • Whooping cough: Also known as pertussis, it’s a bacterial infection of the respiratory tract 

In addition, a dry cough can be a symptom of allergies, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and vocal cord dysfunction. It can also be a consequence of medication use (anti-hypertension drugs such as ACE inhibitors) or cigarette smoking.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) believes that dry coughing stems from dry Heat or internal Deficiencies.

“A dry cough is the direct result of Heat-Fire. The pathogenic factor can also make your stools hard, and you regularly feel thirsty. A Lung Qi (vital life force) Deficiency or Yin (passive energy) Deficiency will prolong the duration of coughing episodes.  

“You’re likely to experience cheek redness, shortness of breath, a pale complexion, or warmness in the feet and hands.”  

Eu Yan Sang Physician Tiang Sack Sing.

Clinical and Alternative Treatment Options for a Dry Cough 

Addressing the underlying cause of your dry cough will clear it more effectively than over-the-counter medication. There are also a few steps you can take to ease the discomfort.

At-home remedies

Woman holding a yellow-coloured lozenge with her right thumb and index finger.  
Herbal lozenges are an effective remedy for a sore throat.

The most important thing to do while treating a dry cough is to stay hydrated. A hot cup of water can soothe a dry throat.

Studies also show that taking a spoonful of honey may relieve coughing. Sucking on lozenges may help lubricate your throat and ease soreness.

Here’s where your cool-mist humidifier at home can help. It increases the amount of moisture in your home environment and soothes inflamed nasal passages and the throat, giving you a break from a dry cough. A steam shower or hot bath, too, can be used for the same effect.

Herbal remedies 

A traditional remedy for a dry cough due to Heat-Fire is the Tendrilleaf Fritillary bulb (chuan bei mu, 川贝母). As a paste, this herbal ingredient can nourish the throat and provide relief.

Another recommended remedy is Chuanbei Loquat Cream, which relieves a dry cough, moisturises your Lungs, gets rid of phlegm and improves qi flow.

Want to soothe your coughing with a soup? Sha Shen Run Fei Qing Run soup (沙参润肺清润汤) is great for easing the hacking and a pale complexion, which indicate a Qi and Yin Deficiency.

If a Yin Deficiency is the cause, take bird’s nest stewed with American ginseng (xi yang shen, 西洋参) and rock sugar. It will help cool the body and improve the palms’ warmth and the cheeks’ redness.

A concoction of steamed lily bulbs (bai he, 百合) and honey can treat a long-term cough or dry throat. Hou Ning powder (喉宁) is traditionally used to relieve a cough but can also calm asthma or bronchitis onset.

The quicker you receive treatment, the better your chances are of preventing a chronic dry cough. Consider using herbal formulas and ingredients to help relieve it holistically. However, avoid self-medicating and seek the opinion of a qualified TCM practitioner instead for best results. 

Got other ways to soothe a dry cough? Tell us below.


  1. Cleveland Clinic. Dry Cough and Chest Tightness. [online] [Accessed 11 November 2022] 
  2. Healthdirect Australia. Cough. [online] [Accessed 11 November 2022] 
  3. Medicover Hospitals. 2022. Dry Cough: Medical Treatment And Home Remedies. [online] [Accessed 11 November 2022] 

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