Is Coughing a Sign of Coronavirus? What Is a Dry Cough?

We get it. You have a cough or know someone who’s been coughing. Normally that wouldn’t be much reason for concern, but we’re all deluged with endless news stories about coronavirus, and it’s scary. It’s important to remember that COVID-19 coronavirus is something that the majority of people who get recover from. But does a cough indicate coronavirus?

The answer is that, yes, a cough or coughing can be a symptom of coronavirus. In fact, coughing is one of the most common symptoms listed. However, it’s not just any cough. It’s a dry cough. Be aware that just because you’re coughing, though, doesn’t mean you have coronavirus. It might be the common cold. It might be the regular flu, allergies, asthma, or something else. spoke to Subinoy Das, MD, medical director for the US Institute for Advanced Sinus Care & Research. He explained that a dry cough was “one where no mucus or phlegm is produced with the cough,” in contrast to a wet cough, which “is one filled with mucus or phlegm where someone can actually feel the mucus move in their bronchi or throat.” Harvard Medical School describes a “wet cough” or “productive cough” as a cough that “produces sputum (phlegm or mucus from the lungs or sinuses). The cough sounds soupy and may come with a wheezing or rattling sound and tightness in your chest.” In contrast, a dry cough doesn’t bring up phlegm.

There are many other things that can cause a dry cough. “If you have a chronic dry cough (a cough that has lasted for more than three weeks), it may be a symptom of allergies or asthma,” explains the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology.

Fever, shortness of breath, and a dry cough are usually listed as the most common symptoms for coronavirus, however. Andrew O’Dwyer, who is recovering from coronavirus, told BBC: “The worst bit is the uncontrollable coughing.”

It’s hard to get testing in many jurisdictions even if you’ve traveled overseas. There’s not a known cure for coronavirus anyway, so if you think you have it, consult with your primary care doctor. Again: Most people who get coronavirus will recover just fine, but some survivors have described a very vicious battle with a flu-like illness. When they say the virus is mild for most, they don’t mean a stuffy nose.

Let’s tease out how common a dry cough is though in studies of coronavirus, with the recognition that people’s bodies handle the virus different ways. Not everyone has the same symptoms at the same stages.

“The most common symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, are fever, cough and shortness of breath,” according to John Hopkins Medicine. “Some patients also have body aches, runny nose, sore throat or diarrhea. If you have a sore throat and think you have been exposed to the new coronavirus, contact a health care provider by phone and discuss your risk.”

Here’s what you need to know:

Yes, a Dry Cough Is a Common Sign of Coronavirus

First of all, your doctor is better equipped to tell you that (don’t take medical advice over the Internet!) But credible research studies and governmental sites have outlined the common symptoms for coronavirus.

A new study from the Wuhan Medical Treatment Expert Group for COVID-19 appeared in The American Journal of Gastroenterology. It studied 204 people who received medical care for COVID-19. You can find the study here. The researchers found that digestive problems were far more common in coronavirus patients than other studies indicated, writing that “half of patients in our cohort reported a digestive symptom.” However, that statistic was inflated by including people reporting a loss of appetite. We include this to point out that the symptoms for coronavirus can really vary by the individual. Just because you have or don’t have a cough doesn’t mean you have coronavirus.

The article Clinical Characteristics of Coronavirus Disease 2019 in China was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. That article noted, “During the first 2 months of the current outbreak, Covid-19 spread rapidly throughout China and caused varying degrees of illness. Patients often presented without fever, and many did not have abnormal radiologic findings.” Thus, although fever is often cited as a leading indicator of coronavirus, an absence of a fever does not mean that you don’t have it, either.

However, this study found that the most common coronavirus symptoms were fever and cough. In this study, a cough was the second most common symptom, appearing in 67.8% of cases studied.

“The median incubation period was 4 days (interquartile range, 2 to 7). The median age of the patients was 47 years (interquartile range, 35 to 58); 0.9% of the patients were younger than 15 years of age. A total of 41.9% were female. Fever was present in 43.8% of the patients on admission but developed in 88.7% during hospitalization,” the researchers reported. “The second most common symptom was cough (67.8%); nausea or vomiting (5.0%) and diarrhea (3.8%) were uncommon. Among the overall population, 23.7% had at least one coexisting illness (e.g., hypertension and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).”

Here’s the list of symptoms with percentages found in that research study:

Emerging 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) Pneumonia is another research study that broke down the percentages of symptoms in Chinese patients with the virus. This study also found that a cough was the second most common symptom after a fever. Forty-seven percent of patients had a cough.

That study of coronavirus patients found that 10 percent had diarrhea and 6 percent had nausea or vomiting. The most common symptom was fever, which was reported by 96 percent of patients, following by a cough (47 percent), a little phlegm (20 percent), myalgia or fatigue (31 percent), mild headache and dizziness (16 percent), loss of appetite (18 percent), and stuffy or runny nose (4 percent).

Here’s the symptom chart from that study:

According to Harvard Medical School, “some people infected with the virus have no symptoms. When the virus does cause symptoms, common ones include low-grade fever, body aches, coughing, nasal congestion, and sore throat. However, COVID-19 can occasionally cause more severe symptoms like high fever, severe cough, and shortness of breath, which often indicates pneumonia.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, coronavirus symptoms “may appear 2-14 days after exposure (based on the incubation period of MERS-CoV viruses).” The site lists the most common symptoms as:

Shortness of breath

The Australian government explains, “If you develop symptoms (fever, a cough, sore throat, tiredness or shortness of breath) within 14 days of leaving country or region that is at higher risk for COVID-19, or within 14 days of last contact of a confirmed case, you should arrange to see your doctor for urgent assessment.”

In general, according to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, coronaviruses (of which there are many), can cause these symptoms:

runny nose
sore throat

Loss of taste and smell and red rimmed eyes have also emerged as possibly symptoms of COVID-19.

Sometimes the virus leads to pneumonia, which is when the virus gets more serious and can require hospitalization.

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