Cough: dry cough treatments

A dry cough is non-productive (no phlegm or mucus is produced) and irritating, usually with a tickly throat. Dry coughs are often caused by viral illnesses such as colds and flu.

Specific treatment for a dry cough will depend on the cause of the cough.

Demulcents

Demulcents are substances that can help treat a dry cough by coating and soothing the back of the throat (pharynx), and relieving the irritation that triggers a dry cough. Demulcents can be used to treat dry cough in children and adults.

Demulcents include:

  • cough syrup, or cough linctus, that contains sugar (sucrose) and glycerol; and
  • honey. Warm water containing honey and lemon, or one to 2 teaspoons of honey taken half an hour before bedtime can help a dry cough. However, honey should not be given to children younger than 12 months of age due to the risk of infant botulism (a rare bacterial infection).

Cough medicines

Cough and cold medicines should not be used in children younger than 6 years of age . Ask your doctor or pharmacist about whether cough and cold medicines should be given to children aged 6 to 11 years.

Cough and cold medicines are not recommended in young children because there is a lack of evidence from clinical trials showing that they are effective for the treatment of cough, and there is some evidence that they can cause harmful side effects in young children.

Cough suppressants

Cough suppressants, sometimes known as antitussives, can be used in the treatment of dry coughs. These medicines work by suppressing the urge to cough.

Cough suppressants that are available from your pharmacist include pholcodine, dextromethorphan, codeine, dihydrocodeine, and pentoxyverine.

Cough suppressants are available as liquid or lozenges. Lozenges may also contain various combinations of other ingredients such as an antiseptic, analgesic, anti-inflammatory or anaesthetic.

Possible side effects of cough suppressants include drowsiness, nausea, vomiting, and constipation. Pregnant and breast feeding women should avoid medicines containing codeine.

Combination products

Some combination cold and flu products – available as tablets or liquid – contain a cough suppressant. Cold and flu combination medicines usually also contain a decongestant (to relieve a blocked or stuffy nose).

Other ingredients can include antihistamines and pain relievers, as well as expectorants and mucolytics (for treatment of productive coughs). Some antihistamines may reduce the urge to cough, and some have sedative effects that may help sleep.

If you have a dry cough, you should avoid taking combination products that contain an expectorant or a mucolytic, as these ingredients are used to treat productive (‘wet’ or chesty) coughs.

Always take care to check the active ingredients in any combination product. If you take a combination product and then also take additional medicines, you risk doubling up on ingredients. For example, added paracetamol may lead to an overdose of paracetamol if other paracetamol products are also being taken.

Side effects of combination products will depend on which medicines are included.

Self-help

The following self-help measures may provide some relief from a dry cough:

  • drinking plenty of liquids;
  • gargling salt water;
  • drinking warm water with honey and lemon;
  • steam inhalations; and
  • avoiding any cough triggers, such as cigarette smoke.
Last Reviewed: 27 May 2014
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References

1. Cough (revised October 2009; amended February 2012). In: eTG complete. Melbourne: Therapeutic Guidelines Limited; 2014 Mar. http://online.tg.org.au/complete/ (accessed Mar 2014).
2. Australian Government Department of Health – Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). Cough and cold medicines for children – changes (26 November 2012). http://www.tga.gov.au/newsroom/btn-cough-cold-medicines-121126.htm#.U03GLfmSzAk (accessed Apr 2014).
3. Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne. Kids Health Info: Cough (updated Dec 2012) http://www.rch.org.au/kidsinfo/fact_sheets/Cough/# (accessed Mar 2014).
4. NHS Choices. Cough (updated 20 Jun 2013). http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/cough/pages/introduction.aspx (accessed Mar 2014).
5. NPS Medicinewise. Types of cough medicines (updated 29 Nov 2012). http://www.nps.org.au/medicines/respiratory-system/cough-and-cold-medicines/for-individuals/types-of-cough-medicines (accessed Apr 2014).
6. NPS Medicinewise. Combination cough and cold medicines (updated 5 Dec 2012). http://www.nps.org.au/medicines/respiratory-system/cough-and-cold-medicines/for-individuals/combination-cough-and-cold-medicines (accessed Apr 2014).
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