Key Facts About Dry Cough & Mesothelioma
  • Dry cough is a common symptom of mesothelioma.
  • Patients may experience dry cough after some mesothelioma treatments.
  • Palliative treatments may help ease coughing and wheezing.
  • Repositioning and avoiding cough triggers can reduce symptoms.
  • 10% of respondents in our 2023 survey experienced dry cough.
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What Is a Dry Cough?

A dry cough is a cough that produces little to no mucus. It is a respiratory reflex designed to keep the throat and airways clear. Many people experience occasional dry coughs; however, persistent or chronic coughing could indicate a more serious condition such as pleural mesothelioma.

Coughing is a warning sign of mesothelioma cancer, but it cannot confirm a diagnosis alone. Therefore, patients experiencing a persistent dry cough should consult a pulmonary specialist to determine the underlying cause.

Patients need to discuss any history of asbestos exposure and symptoms such as a dry cough with their medical provider. This can help reduce the chances of a misdiagnosis. Mesothelioma patients who receive an early diagnosis have more treatment options and better long-term outcomes than those whose condition goes undiagnosed until later stages. 

What Causes Dry Cough for Mesothelioma Patients?

A dry cough results from a thickening of the lung lining, or pleura, which then presses inward. This thickening can also contribute to shortness of breath and chest pain.

Irritation, disease progression and side effects of certain treatments can cause mesothelioma patients to experience dry cough. Patients with peritoneal mesothelioma rarely experience dry cough, unless their cancer spreads to the lungs. Some research suggests mesothelioma-related cough may contain small amounts of mucus, so if you have a history of asbestos exposure, speak to your doctor even if your cough is wet.

Mesothelioma-Related Causes of Dry Cough
  • Pleural effusion: Fluid buildup between the lungs and chest wall often produces a cough. The more fluid present, the greater the number of symptoms.
  • Pleural thickening: As the pleura thickens, it presses inward on the lungs. This can cause discomfort, shortness of breath and coughing.
  • Tumors: Nerve damage from pleural tumors can trigger coughing.

Dry cough is also a common symptom of pneumonia and other chest infections. Patients with pleural mesothelioma have a higher incidence of chest infections than the general population. 

In addition, immunocompromised individuals are more likely to develop lung infections that cause coughs. Some mesothelioma treatments may compromise the immune system. Additionally, repeated coughing can contribute to further irritation and worsening symptoms.

Survivor Story
Don Berlin Pleural Mesothelioma

Dry Cough, Chest Tightness, Shortness of Breath Led to Mesothelioma Diagnosis

Survivor Story

Don’s dry cough and chest tightness were puzzling. He was out of breath much too quickly. One doctor visit led to another and another. Finally, a battery of tests led to a pleural mesothelioma diagnosis. He traveled to New York for pleurectomy/decortication surgery. He did six months of chemotherapy but scheduled it around an Alaskan cruise.

Read Don’s Story

Coughing From Mesothelioma Treatment

Some mesothelioma treatments may contribute to increased dry coughing. This can be a direct result of the treatment or because it increases the risk of certain lung infections.

Treatments Possibly Causing Dry Cough
  • Anesthesia
  • Chemotherapy
  • Immunotherapy
  • Radiation
  • Surgery

Some treatments such as radiation produce a dry cough that gradually develops a higher mucus content. Additionally, many patients experience coughing postsurgery that is not strong enough to clear phlegm from the lungs or throat. Patients should not confuse this with a dry cough from mesothelioma or a lung infection.

Treating Dry Cough Related to Mesothelioma

Health care providers treat dry cough related to mesothelioma with medications, medical procedures and some complementary therapies. The exact treatment protocol recommended depends on the cause of the cough. An effective treatment strategy can greatly improve the quality of life of mesothelioma patients.

Persistent coughing irritates the throat, which can lead to additional coughing. Breaking the cough cycle may relieve patients. Sniffing and swallowing, sipping water and using throat drops may lessen coughing. 

At-Home Cough Remedies

At-home cough remedies for dry coughs are an accessible and effective option for controlling lesser symptoms. Many use common household ingredients or items, which makes them especially convenient to administer.  

At-Home Remedies for Coughs
  • Drinking hot water with lemon and honey
  • Gargling with salt water
  • Running a humidifier at home
  • Using menthol or cough drops

Herbal teas such as ginger, marshmallow root, peppermint, slippery elm bark and thyme may also offer relief. However, patients should use caution when taking any herbal remedies as they can interact with medications or aggravate other medical conditions. Some of these remedies may cause allergic reactions. Seek the advice of a doctor before starting any homeopathic, herbal or over-the-counter remedies. 

Avoid Coughing Triggers

Many environmental triggers irritate the airways and induce coughing. Patients should try to identify situations and products that worsen their cough and limit exposure whenever possible to reduce symptoms.

Air filters can reduce some airborne irritants. A 2020 report on the effects of filtering smoke with portable air filters showed that portable mechanical air filtration devices significantly reduced particulates from indoor air.

Common Cough Triggers
  • Aerosol sprays
  • Certain foods such as capsaicin
  • Cold weather
  • Smoke and pollution
  • Strong fragrances

Smoky environments are a common trigger for coughs. Patients who have family or friends who smoke indoors should discuss alternatives. This can be a difficult conversation, but it’s necessary to reduce painful coughing and associated mesothelioma symptoms. 

Changing Positions

Because certain body positions contribute to coughing and make breathing more difficult, changing positions can improve symptoms. Laying flat is a common trigger for coughing. Propping up on pillows or in a chair may provide relief. 

Different sleep positions that can help with a dry cough

Sleep positions can also affect breathing. Lying in a supine position puts excess pressure on the lungs and chest, and it can aggravate a cough. Adding pillows under the head, neck and shoulders or propping the head of the bed up can reduce this effect. Side sleepers may find relief by raising the head and neck. 

Complementary Therapies

Complementary therapies, including acupuncture, acupressure, cupping, medical marijuana and meditation, may help alleviate symptoms of mesothelioma, though they cannot cure it. For example, mind-body therapies can improve breath control, which may alleviate dry coughing. 

Cupping is another therapy that may work for some patients. Doctors may recommend it to expand the lungs and provide relief. Pleural mesothelioma survivor Kim Madril recognized the value of the treatment, explaining, “For me, cupping was really uncomfortable. But it was part of my doctor’s protocol…There was some value to it. You have to stretch out your lungs.” 


Some medications can ease dry coughing associated with mesothelioma. Cough suppressants, such as Robitussin, reduce coughing, which helps break the cycle. 

Other medications used to reduce coughing include painkillers and steroids that lower inflammation and irritation. Nebulizers can deliver some medications directly into the lungs via an inhaled mist. 

Palliative Procedures and Surgery

Surgery is a treatment option used to remove as much of the tumor as possible. This reduces many symptoms of mesothelioma, including coughing and shortness of breath. Radiation and chemotherapy may help further shrink tumors.

Even after surgery, dry cough frequently persists or worsens as the disease progresses. Palliative care improves patient comfort and quality of life. Treatments may include draining fluid buildup from the pleural lining to relieve pressure on the lungs and ease symptoms such as dry cough and wheezing.

Emotional Effects of Dry Cough

A persistent dry cough can have a serious impact on emotional health, with frustration turning into anxiety and depression for many people. Patients and caregivers are both affected. Talking to a health care provider can help people navigate this emotionally difficult symptom of mesothelioma.  

Emotional Impact of Persistent Coughing
  • Daily tasks and chores: A persistent cough can interfere with the ability to complete daily tasks and favorite activities.
  • Reminder of your illness: A dry cough serves as a reminder of a mesothelioma diagnosis.
  • Social anxiety: Many patients avoid social situations because of the stigma associated with a persistent cough. This can increase loneliness and negatively affect emotional health.

Patients and their caregivers may find a mesothelioma support group helpful. These groups offer a safe place to share concerns and emotions with others undergoing a similar situation. The benefits of joining a support group include reducing anxiety, loneliness and social withdrawal.