Dry coughs

General Information

A dry cough is non-productive and irritating, and sometimes causes a tickly throat. Your chest is not congested, your breathing is alright, and you may feel quite well, apart from the cough.

A dry cough may be the result of a recent head cold or the flu. This is sometimes called a post-viral cough. Dry coughs may be caused by a dry atmosphere, air pollution or a change in temperature.

The cough may also be a sign of other problems, such as asthma, heartburn or stomach acid reflux, heart failure or a side effect of some medicines. Therefore it is important to tell your health professional all your symptoms and medication history.

See Your Pharmacist or Medical Professional

  • if the person with the dry cough is under five years old
  • if you begin coughing up mucus or blood
  • if you feel short of breath or wheezy
  • if your dry cough is mainly at night, is painful, changes or lasts longer than 10 days
  • if you are a smoker
  • if you have a temperature, a persistent headache, sore ears or a rash
  • if you have recently lost weight or have aching muscles
  • if you have high blood pressure, a heart condition, a respiratory illness such as asthma, or stomach problems
  • if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, as some medicines may not be suitable
  • if you have other medical conditions or take other medicines
  • if you have allergies to any medicines

Treatment Tips

  • avoid dry environments and drink plenty of water
  • gargle with plain water for one minute, three times a day; this can ease symptoms
  • cough suppressants are best to stop a dry, irritating cough
  • two cough suppressants, pholcodine and dextromethorphan, are contained in most cough mixtures as they have fewer side effects than older cough suppressants, such as codeine
  • if you feel there is something from your chest to cough up, such as mucus, then cough suppressants are not appropriate. Discuss the use of a chesty cough medicine with the pharmacist
  • if you have a runny nose and cough when you lie down, your nose could be causing the cough and you need to treat this; see your pharmacist for advice
  • match the ingredients of a cough mixture to your symptoms; check with your pharmacist
  • avoid products for wet coughs, such as guaiphenesin and bromhexine, when you have a dry cough
  • some ingredients in combination products should be avoided by the very young, elderly women and pregnant or breastfeeding women; check with your pharmacist

Treatment Options

Cough suppressants (antitussives)

[PHARMACY ONLY]
e.g. dextromethorphan (Benadryl for the Family Dry Forte, Bisolvon Dry Oral Liquid, Cepacol Cough +, Robitussin Dry Cough Forte, Strepsils Cough Relief), pholcodine (Duro-Tuss Dry Cough Liquid)

  • pholcodine is available in cough medicines and lozenges
  • dextromethorphan is available in cold and flu tablets, cough medicines and lozenges
  • if you only have a dry cough, use a cough suppressant
  • if you only have a dry cough, avoid combination medicines containing ingredients that treat other symptoms, such as a blocked nose
  • dextromethorphan can interact with other medications; seek advice from the pharmacist
  • cough suppressants are also in some cold and flu tablets; check with your pharmacist

Cough soothers (demulcents)

[GENERAL SALE]
e.g. glycerol, honey, syrup

  • cough soothers coat the throat to reduce irritation, dryness and soothe a cough
  • cough soothers are contained in cough medicines and some cough lozenges
  • sucking on a lozenge produces extra saliva to soothe a cough
  • these are safe for most people but some include sugar, so people with diabetes should be careful
  • sugar-free mixtures and lozenges are available

Combination products

[PHARMACY ONLY]
e.g. dextromethorphan + phenylephrine + brompheniramine (Demazin Cough & Cold Relief); pholcodine + phenylephrine (Durotuss PE Dry Cough Plus Nasal Decongestant)

[PHARMACIST ONLY]
e.g. dextromethorphan + pseudoephedrine (Benadryl for the Family Dry Cough and Nasal Congestion Oral Liquid);
dextromethorphan + diphenhydramine (Benadryl for the Family Nightime Oral Liquid);
dextromethorphan + chlorpheniramine + paracetamol + pseudoephedrine (Lemsip Pharmacy Flu Strength - Nightime);
dextromethorphan + paracetamol + pseudoephedrine (Demazin Cough Cold and Flu Tablets);
pholcodine + promethazine (Tixylix Nightime Linctus);
pholcodine + pseudoephedrine (Durotuss Dry Cough Liquid plus Nasal Decongestant);

  • combination products are useful when you have more than one symptom
  • a nasal decongestant, such as pseudoephedrine or phenylephrine, with a cough suppressant would unblock your nose and suppress a cough
  • some contain antihistamines, such as promethazine or diphenhydramine or brompheniramine to stop a runny nose or cough
  • sometimes decongestants, such as pseudoephedrine and phenylephrine, may cause insomnia and restlessness
  • antihistamines in cough medicines may cause drowsiness; do not drive or operate machinery while taking them

Lozenges

[PHARMACY ONLY]
e.g. Cepacol Cough +, Difflam Anti-Inflammatory Sugarfree Cough Lozenges, Strepsils Cough Relief

  • these lozenges contain a cough suppressant, and sometimes other ingredients, to prevent bacterial infection or provide pain relief for a sore throat
  • some ingredients in cough lozenges are also included in cough medicines and cold and flu tablets
  • some lozenges for cough can also contain a local anaesthetic; it is important not to eat or drink hot items afterwards as this could burn your mouth
  • lozenges are not suitable for young children
  • some lozenges contain sugar but sugar-free versions are available

More Information

Availability of medicines

  • GENERAL SALE available through pharmacies and possibly other retail outlets.
  • PHARMACY ONLY available for sale through pharmacies only.
  • PHARMACIST ONLY may only be sold by a pharmacist.

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Last Reviewed: 13 September 2009
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