Medically Approved

What’s causing that cough?

5 minute read
Person drinking warm tea

Coughing is your body’s way of clearing out your lungs and airways. Decoding why you got that pesky cough in the first place is the key to finding relief.

Lauren Bedosky

By Lauren Bedosky

You’ve picked up a cough and can’t seem to shake it. Is it from a cold, the flu, bronchitis or simply dry air in your home? Figuring out why you’re coughing is an important step in making it stop.

Read on to find out the symptoms of different kinds of coughs and what they could mean. Then, try our doctor-approved remedies to help you feel better fast.

If it’s a dry cough

Coughing is how your body clears your lungs and airways of irritants. This helps you breathe better. A dry cough doesn’t produce phlegm (sometimes called mucus). That means you don’t cough anything up. You’ll often feel a tickling sensation in your throat before you cough.

A dry cough can have many causes, from allergies to viruses. “A dry cough may also just be from an irritant and can be short-lived,” says Todd Shaffer, MD. He is a family physician in Kansas City, Missouri. Chemical irritants, smoke, dry air and other pollutants are common dry-cough culprits.

Many people who get infected with COVID-19 also have a dry cough, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Some medications cause dry coughs as well. That includes medications commonly used for hypertension, such as the ACE inhibitor lisinopril.

Asthma and gastroesophageal reflux disease can also cause a dry cough and other symptoms such as wheezing or a sour taste in the mouth, Dr. Shaffer says.

If it’s a wet cough

A wet cough is a productive cough. That means it clears phlegm out of your lungs and airways. “There may even be some rattling or a feeling like something is moving in your chest during a wet cough,” Dr. Shaffer says.

A wet cough often goes hand in hand with an infection. The main culprits? Flu, cold, pneumonia and upper-respiratory bacterial or viral infections, says Asha Shajahan, MD. She’s a family medicine doctor and the medical director of community health at Beaumont Hospital in Grosse Pointe, Michigan.

If your cough comes from a cold or the flu, you’ll likely experience symptoms such as:

  • Nasal congestion
  • Body aches
  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Fatigue

Wet coughs are also a common symptom of bronchitis. This is an inflammation of the bronchial tubes, which carry air to and from your lungs.

Bronchitis can be short-term (also known as a chest cold) or chronic. Chest colds typically improve within a week to 10 days, according to the Mayo Clinic. But the cough often tends to linger for a few weeks.

Chronic bronchitis, on the other hand, is a serious condition often caused by smoking. If you suspect you have it, you need to see a doctor.

The 5 best cough remedies

When a cough strikes, reach for one or more of these expert-approved remedies.

Cough drops and syrups: Over-the-counter (OTC) cough drops and syrups help soothe a sore throat and prevent coughing. “Medications that include dextromethorphan, a cough suppressant, are probably the best and safest for most people,” Dr. Shaffer notes.

You can get a variety of OTC cough medicines at the Optum Store — all from the comfort of home.

It’s important to follow the dosing directions on the label. And be sure to take into account any other medications you’re taking. “When people get sick, they often take multiple OTC medications without realizing that the different brands have similar or the same ingredients,” says Cindy Cedillo-Ruiz, MD. She is a family medicine physician in Houston, Texas.

Taking too much dextromethorphan, for example, can cause dangerous side effects. According to the Mayo Clinic, that includes:

  • Blurred vision
  • Confusion
  • Severe nausea and vomiting
  • Dizziness or drowsiness
  • Slowed breathing
  • Severe irritability or nervousness

Parents, take note: Don’t give cough medicines to kids younger than 6 without the approval of their health care provider.

Warm tea: Have a cup of warm tea when your throat feels sore and scratchy from coughing. Add lemon to help break up the mucus and get pain relief.

In addition, warm tea provides the body with fluids. “This is very important when someone’s feeling sick,” Dr. Cedillo-Ruiz says. Fluids also help clear mucus and keep things flowing.

Gargling with salt water: You can break up the phlegm in the back of your throat by gargling. Salt water can also reduce swelling and irritation in the throat.

Steps for gargling with salt water:

  1. Dissolve ½ teaspoon of salt into 8 ounces of water.
  2. Gargle (but don’t swallow).
  3. Repeat every 3 hours.

Honey: Syrupy and sweet, honey is an effective remedy for soothing a sore throat and suppressing a cough. In fact, it can be just as effective as some OTC medications, Dr. Cedillo-Ruiz says.

In addition to its soothing qualities, honey has natural antibacterial properties. It reduces inflammation and kills bacteria and viruses, helping fight off infections that may be causing your cough.

Mix 1 or 2 tablespoons of honey in a warm glass of water or tea and stir it well. One warning: Never give honey to babies under the age of 1.

Humidifier: The cold days of winter tend to bring dry air, which can wreak havoc on your throat. A humidifier adds moisture to the air, helping to open up your sinuses and soothe a sore throat.

A warm shower offers some of the same benefits as a humidifier. “The steam from the shower is a cost-effective way to keep the mucus moving and drain the sinuses,” Dr. Cedillo-Ruiz says.

When to see your doctor

Touch base with your doctor if you start taking a new medication and develop a cough. It’s also a good idea to schedule an appointment if at-home remedies don’t help.

Finally, be sure to contact your doctor if you have any of these symptoms along with your cough:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Wheezing
  • A sour taste in your mouth

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Additional sources
Dry cough and COVID: Cleveland Clinic (2021). “Dry Cough and Chest Tightness”
Chest cold: Mayo Clinic (n.d.). “Bronchitis”
Side effects: Mayo Clinic (2022). “Dextromethorphan (Oral Route)”