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Cold and Flu Center

Medicines for Dry Coughing

author image Dr. Tina M. St. John
Dr. Tina M. St. John owns and operates a health communications and consulting firm. She is also an accomplished medical writer and editor, and was formerly a senior medical officer with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. St. John holds an M.D. from Emory University School of Medicine.
Medicines for Dry Coughing
A persistent dry cough requires medical evaluation to determine the underlying cause. Photo Credit: Manuel Faba Ortega/iStock/Getty Images

Coughing is a brain-controlled reflex that clears mucus and particulate matter from the airways. Nerves in the airways and chest connect with the cough center in the brain to trigger the reflex. Many medical conditions can provoke dry coughing, including infections of the upper airways, allergies, acid reflux and lung tumors. The medication used to treat a dry cough depends on the underlying cause of the symptom.

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Dextromethorphan is an over-the-counter cough suppressant that may be helpful for dry coughing associated with a head cold or the flu, notes Dextromethorphan can be particularly useful for cold or flu-related dry coughing that interferes with sleep.

Narcotic Cough Suppressants

Lung cancer or metastatic lung tumors can irritate the airways, causing persistent coughing. In these circumstances, the cough serves no beneficial purpose and may interfere with sleep and quality of life. In these circumstances, doctors may prescribe a narcotic cough suppressant, such as codeine, hydrocodone and hydromorphone. These medications act on the brain cough center to suppress the cough reflex, explains


Colds, nasal allergies and acute sinusitis can cause postnasal drip--mucus flow from the back of the nose that runs down the throat. Post-nasal drip often causes dry coughing, especially when lying down. Decongestants, such as phenylephrine and pseudoephedrine, can help relieve post-nasal drip and the associated dry cough, reports These medications are available over the counter in pediatric and adult strengths.


Allergies are a common cause of dry coughing, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Allergies trigger the release of histamine, which causes allergy symptoms. Antihistamines can help reduce dry coughing associated with allergies by blocking the effects of histamine. Commonly used antihistamines include loratidine, diphenhydramine, chlorpheniramine and cetirizine. These medications are available over-the-counter and in prescription strengths.


Bacterial infection of the windpipe, or tracheitis, is a serious childhood condition. The infection causes swelling of the windpipe, accompanied by dry coughing, high fever, breathing difficulty and high-pitched wheezing, notes the National Library of Medicine online encyclopedia MedlinePlus. Severe breathing difficulty often necessitates insertion of a breathing tube into the airway. Antibiotics are the primary form of treatment for this infectious cause of dry coughing.

H2 Blockers and Proton Pump Inhibitors

Gastroesophageal reflux involves backflow of stomach acid into the food pipe, or esophagus. The acid irritates the esophagus, which often triggers the cough reflex. In a 2006 article published in the journal "Chest," Dr. Richard Irwin reports that acid reflux is a leading cause of dry cough. H2 blockers and proton pump inhibitors substantially decrease the production of stomach acid, alleviating esophageal irritation associated with acid reflux. Treatment with these medications typically leads to resolution of reflux-induced coughing. Over-the-counter and prescription strength H2 blockers include famotidine, cimetidine, nizatidine and ranitidine. Proton-pump inhibitors include pantoprazole, omeprazole, lansoprazole, esomeprazole and rabeprazole.

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