Different dry cough medications are available, such as cough suppressants, decongestants, and lozenges. A doctor will recommend the most suitable medication based on the cause of the dry cough.

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A dry cough irritates the respiratory tract nerves without producing mucus. A dry cough can last a short time or become a long-term problem. Effective treatment may depend, in part, on the underlying cause.

A dry cough may develop as a result of:

This article discusses the best types of dry cough medications, home remedies, and prevention tips.

Cough suppressants block the cough reflex. Although they may not treat the underlying cause, they may reduce symptoms. Dextromethorphan has been one of the most common cough suppressants for the past 50 years.

In the United States, several over-the-counter (OTC) medications for children and adults contain dextromethorphan, including:

  • Robitussin Cough and Chest Congestion DM
  • Dimetapp Cold and Cough
  • Theraflu Cough Relief
  • Mucinex DM

Read more about dextromethorphan effects.

Dosage

Cough suppressant medications most commonly come in the following forms:

  • liquid
  • dissolving strip
  • chewable tablet
  • lozenge

The recommended dosage for medications containing cough suppressants may vary depending on the exact active drug and a person’s weight and age.

The typical adult dosage for medication containing dextromethorphan is 15–30 milligrams (mg) up to four times per day. A person should not take more than 120 mg in 24 hours.

Precautions

Some cough suppressants can cause psychological effects if people take high doses, such as:

Some research suggests that up to 64% of people who take dextromethorphan at high doses may experience some central nervous system (CNS) effects, such as visual hallucinations. A high dose is anything more than 4 mg per kilogram of body weight.

Potential side effects

Possible side effects from cough suppressants include:

Learn more about cough and cold medications.

In some cases, a stuffy nose may lead to a dry cough. Decongestants help reduce the swelling in the upper airway. This helps a person breathe more easily, reduces postnasal drip, and eases dry coughing.

Different decongestant medications are available. Pseudoephedrine is a common decongestant. OTC medications containing pseudoephedrine include:

  • Sudafed
  • Triaminic
  • Mucinex

Dosage

Decongestants come in various forms, including:

  • liquids
  • tablets
  • extended-release tablets

The dosage for decongestants depends on the active ingredient. For decongestants containing pseudoephedrine, the dosage is usually 60 mg up to four times per day, or 120 mg twice daily for the extended-release form. A person should not take more than 240 mg in 24 hours.

Precautions

Medications containing decongestants can stimulate the CNS. Doctors may not recommend this type of medication to people who have:

People who have the following conditions should consult a healthcare professional before using decongestants:

  • diabetes
  • increased intraocular pressure or glaucoma
  • a seizure disorder

Potential side effects

Possible side effects from taking some decongestants, such as those containing pseudoephedrine, include:

Menthol lozenges are another OTC option to treat a dry cough. Menthol provides a cooling sensation and may have a temporary numbing effect that reduces a dry cough.

Common brands of menthol lozenges include:

  • Cepacol
  • Halls
  • Ricola

Dosage

Menthol lozenges come in different strengths. The recommended dosage is 1 lozenge every 2 hours and a maximum of 12 lozenges in 24 hours.

The recommendation for children over age 12 is 1 lozenge every 2–3 hours and a maximum of 8 in 24 hours.

Each lozenge contains 5.4 mg of the active ingredient, menthol.

Precautions

Doctors may not recommend menthol lozenges for children. People with diabetes should check the label for sugar percentage because the sugar content can vary.

Potential side effects

Menthol lozenges have minimal side effects unless someone is allergic to menthol.

Signs of an allergic reaction include:

In addition to the OTC medications, prescription drugs may treat a dry cough. Neuromodulators are one example.

A neuromodulator inhibits the transmission of nerve impulses. Doctors use this type of medication to treat:

Sometimes, a doctor may use a neuromodulator off-label to treat a chronic cough, including chronic dry cough. “Off-label” means that a doctor uses the medication for something other than its FDA-approved use.

According to 2020 research, neuromodulators such as gabapentin and tramadol may benefit people with chronic cough. However, further studies are necessary to assess the effectiveness of tramadol for this purpose.

Dosage

Because using neuromodulators to treat a dry cough is an off-label use, doctors do not have extensive studies on a starting dose.

However, some research suggests that 100 mg of the neuromodulator gabapentin daily may help reduce coughing with minimal side effects.

Precautions

Limited studies suggest that people tolerate neuromodulators in low doses for chronic dry cough.

However, as with any medication, especially for off-label use, individuals should discuss the risks and benefits with a healthcare professional.

Potential side effects

The potential side effects of taking a neuromodulator for a chronic dry cough may depend on the specific medication. Typical side effects may include:

  • nausea
  • fatigue
  • dizziness

Home remedies or alternative treatments may help reduce a dry cough. Below are a few options to consider.

Honey

Taking honey may help suppress a dry cough.

A 2018 review suggests that honey may help reduce a cough more effectively than certain types of cough medication, such as diphenhydramine.

Parents or caregivers should not give honey to babies younger than age 1 because of the risk of botulism.

Learn more about using honey for cough and cold symptoms.

Salt water gargling

Gargling with salt water may ease the irritation that can lead to a dry cough. It may also help kill bacteria in the throat that can lead to infection.

Dissolve 1 teaspoon of salt in a glass of warm water and gargle. Do not swallow the water. Usually, gargling with salt water does not cause any adverse effects.

Marshmallow root extract

Taking marshmallow root extract may help reduce dry cough symptoms.

A 2018 study found that marshmallow root extract had a positive effect on pharyngeal irritation. Participants reported that their symptoms subsided within 10 minutes of taking the extract.

One of the best ways to prevent a dry cough is to treat any underlying medical conditions. The following may also help:

  • using a humidifier to keep the air moist
  • drinking plenty of water
  • removing allergens, such as dust
  • avoiding common lung irritants, such as tobacco smoke

A dry cough often occurs due to a cold, allergies, or asthma.

However, it is helpful to consult a doctor if a dry cough becomes persistent. Consider contacting a doctor if:

  • the cough lasts longer than 2 weeks
  • additional symptoms, such as a fever, occur
  • shortness of breath develops

In most cases, a dry cough is not a medical emergency. However, a person should consult a doctor if any of the following symptoms develop:

The best medications for a dry cough may vary depending on the cause.

In most cases, OTC medications such as cough suppressants, decongestants, and lozenges can help decrease a dry cough. Prescription medication may relieve symptoms if the cough becomes chronic.

Home remedies, such as honey and marshmallow root extract may also reduce the effect of a dry cough.