Written By: Karen Selby, RN, Last modified: November 3, 2020

What Is a Dry Cough?

Coughing is a common symptom caused by many conditions. It is a reflex that keeps your throat and airways clear.

An occasional cough is normal. But a recurring or chronic cough may be a sign of an underlying health condition, and often, pulmonary doctors will get involved.

In the early stages of pleural mesothelioma, symptoms such as dry cough can easily be mistaken as a less serious condition. Doctors may misdiagnose a recurring cough, trouble breathing or chest pain as a chest infection such as bronchitis or pneumonia.

Dry Cough and Mesothelioma Facts

  • Very common symptom and treatment side effect
  • Usually worsens as the cancer spreads
  • Palliative treatment can ease dry cough and wheezing
  • Trying different positions and avoiding coughing triggers may help

While dry cough is an initial warning sign of pleural mesothelioma, it cannot diagnose the cancer alone. If you have a history of asbestos exposure and develop a consistent or worsening dry cough, tell your doctor about your exposure history.

Some people with mesothelioma experience symptoms such as dry cough for at least a few months before they are diagnosed. Unfortunately, these symptoms develop after the cancer has reached a later stage of development when treatment isn’t as effective.

Patients diagnosed in the early stages of mesothelioma typically have more treatment options and a better chance at long-term survival.

What Causes Dry Cough for Mesothelioma Patients?

When mesothelioma develops on the pleura (the lining of the lungs), it causes it to thicken and press inward on the lung. This pressure may cause dry cough, shortness of breath and chest pain.

Tumors may also damage the nerves that connect to the pleura, triggering coughing. Pleural effusion, or the buildup of fluid around the lung, is also known to cause coughing in some patients.

People with pleural mesothelioma are more likely to get chest infections such as pneumonia. Dry cough is a common symptom of pneumonia.

Repeated coughing causes irritation and inflammation of the airways, which makes coughing even worse and more frequent.

Coughing from Mesothelioma Treatment

Mesothelioma treatments such as radiation therapy can temporarily intensify symptoms, including shortness of breath and coughing.

Aggressive surgeries may cause short-term risks that can increase and worsen dry cough. These risks include pneumonia, fluid accumulation in the lungs and pus accumulation in the pleural space.

Patients with peritoneal mesothelioma typically don’t experience dry cough unless the cancer spreads from the abdomen to the chest cavity.

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Treating Dry Cough Related to Mesothelioma

Dry cough caused by mesothelioma or cancer treatment can be controlled by medications, home remedies or medical procedures. The right treatment for dry cough depends on the suspected cause of the symptom.

Surgery

Aggressive surgical options aim to remove as much tumor growth as possible. This can ease symptoms such as shortness of breath and dry cough. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy can also decrease coughing.

Palliative Procedures

Draining fluid buildup from the pleural lining can relieve pressure on the lungs and ease symptoms such as dry cough and wheezing.

Cough Remedies

Some mesothelioma patients have found relief from dry cough using the following at-home remedies.

  • Using menthol drops or other cough drops
  • Drinking hot water with lemon juice and honey
  • Drinking herbal teas known for cough suppression such as marshmallow root, ginger root, slippery elm bark, thyme leaves and peppermint leaves
  • Using a humidifier at home
  • Gargling warm water mixed with a half teaspoon of salt

Changing Positions

Sitting or lying in certain positions can make breathing more difficult and increase coughing. Try sitting or sleeping in different positions, including propped up with more pillows or lying on a particular side.

Avoid Coughing Triggers

Certain environmental factors or products can trigger a cough. These include smoke, cold air, aerosol sprays and strong fragrances. Pay attention to what triggers your cough and try to avoid those situations.

Staying clear of smoky environments, using scent-free soaps, wearing a scarf on cold days and using solid deodorants instead of aerosol antiperspirants are a few ways to avoid coughing triggers.

Medications

Over-the-counter medicines and prescription drugs may help ease your cough. Suppressants such as Robitussin (dextromethorphan) can cut the number of times you cough.

Some patients with a lung infection or chest cold cough more because it is hard for them to bring up phlegm. Expectorants such as Mucinex (guaifenesin) help thin mucus, making it easier to cough up. This is helpful for wet coughing rather than dry coughing.

Certain prescription pain killers and steroids may also control a recurring cough. A nebulizer, which delivers medication in the form of a mist inhaled into the lungs, can help.

Complementary Therapies

Complementary therapies help ease the effects of mesothelioma symptoms on the mind and body. Acupressure, acupuncture and aromatherapy can help manage dry cough. Mind-body therapies, such as yoga and meditation, help control breathing, which may reduce the amount a patient coughs.

Emotional Effects of Dry Cough

A persistent dry cough can cause frustration, anxiety and even depression in some patients with mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma patients and their caregivers can speak to their doctors and nurses about ways to minimize persistent dry cough and the emotional and social effects that come with it.

Daily Tasks and Chores

Uncontrollable coughing makes it hard to manage daily tasks such as bathing, cooking or household chores. It can make it difficult to sleep, which leads to fatigue. It can also increase other mesothelioma symptoms such as chest pain.

Social Anxiety

Mesothelioma patients with a chronic cough may not feel comfortable in social settings. They may feel embarrassed about their coughing and avoid public places such as restaurants, movie theaters and grocery stores.

The fear of coughing in public venues makes it hard to pursue hobbies and other activities you enjoy. Talking to family members or friends in person or on the phone may be difficult since coughing interrupts conversations. This can cause a patient to feel isolated from loved ones and their support system.

Reminder of the Illness

Constant coughing also acts as a reminder of a patient’s cancer, which can lead to fear and anxiety. It can act as an outward sign of illness to others, making it difficult for those who want to keep their diagnosis private.


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