Dry coughs are coughs caused by inflammation at the back of the throat (pharynx) or upper airways (trachea or bronchi).
These coughs may be accompanied by a feeling of irritation at the back of the throat relieved by coughing – because of this, dry coughs are also sometimes referred to as ‘tickly coughs’.
Unlike chesty coughs, dry coughs are not caused by an over-production of mucus. This is why doctors refer to dry coughs as ‘non-productive’ coughs.
Most dry tickly coughs are caused by viral infections. This page provides information on dry tickly coughs associated with colds or flu.
Causes of dry tickly coughs
Dry tickly coughs are most commonly caused by cold and flu viruses.
We pick these viruses up mainly with our hands. These are then transferred to our noses and mouths before travelling to the back of our throats and upper airways.
If our immune system is not able to overcome this infection, viruses enter the tissues of the pharynx and larynx, causing inflammation.
Unlike infection further down the respiratory tract, infection of this area may not lead to an excessive amount of mucus. However, it does lead to inflammation and it is this that irritates the nerves lining the respiratory tract, triggering the cough reflex. Dry coughs can linger even after the infection appears to have resolved.
Dry tickly coughs can also be triggered by pollution, a smoky atmosphere or cold air.
What should I look out for?
Dry coughs can also be caused by other conditions apart from cold or flu infections. Seek medical advice if you:
- Cough up blood
- Feel short of breath or wheezy
- Suffer from asthma and experience a dry cough, especially at night
- Your cough does not improve within 7 days
- Suffer from an unexplained persistent cough lasting longer than 8 weeks
- Are also feeling tired
- Experience fever
- Notice unexplained weight loss
Treating a dry cough
A dry cough caused by cold or flu viruses is simply a symptom of the infection so the first thing to do is to treat the cold or flu. The herb echinacea has been shown to reduce the severity of symptoms as well as reducing the number of illness days. It works by strengthening the immune system.
In addition, there are a number of ways of specifically treating a dry cough including:
- Cough suppressants – medicines which reduce the sensitivity of the cough reflex and usually contain the chemicals codeine (from the opium family) or destromethorphan
- Honey - a great natural way of soothing the lining of the tissues at the back of the throat
- Herbal remedies such as spruce have been used traditionally to help dry tickly coughs
It is unlikely that antibiotics will help people suffering from a dry cough as these drugs only work on bacteria and most dry coughs are the result of viral infections. Antibiotics may be prescribed by your doctor if you have an underlying lung condition, or if he thinks that you have a ‘secondary’ bacterial infection.
Lifestyle advice for dry coughs
If you smoke, you should reduce the amount of cigarettes consumed to reduce the irritation to your respiratory system. You may also wish to take the chance to stop for good.
In addition, the following will help you:
- Make sure you drink enough water. Coughing all day can make you dehydrated.
- Take enough rest and sleep. This will give your immune system a better chance of fighting the infection causing your dry cough
- Avoid smoky, closed or damp atmospheres as they will exacerbate the problem
- Taking a walk in the fresh air can be good for you, but note that if you have a dry cough, a sudden change in air temperature entering your lungs can lead to a bout of coughing.