What is a tickly cough?
Tickly coughs are closely related to dry coughs and these terms are often used interchangeably. As dry or tickly coughs produce little or no mucus, they are known as non-productive coughs, distinct from chesty coughs where mucus is produced when coughing.
Tickly coughs often result from an irritation in the throat (pharynx) and the cough is triggered to relieve this feeling of irritation.
Common causes of tickly coughs
Some common causes of tickly coughs include some of the following:
- Viral infections - tickly coughs are most commonly caused by cold and flu viruses. We tend pick these viruses up mainly via our hands. These are then transferred to our noses and mouths before travelling to the back of our throat and upper airways (pharynx and larynx). Then, if our immune system isn't able to overcome this infection quickly, viruses can enter the tissues of the upper airways and create inflammation. Unlike infections further down the respiratory tract, infection of the upper airways does not produce an excessive amount of mucus. However, what it does do is irritate the nerves lining the area, triggering the cough reflex. Post-nasal drip (common after an infection) may also give rise to a tickly cough. Tickly coughs can linger days or weeks after the infection appears to have resolved
- Environmental irritants - tickly coughs can be triggered by pollution, a smoky atmosphere or cold air. This is because the particles in the air you breathe are trapped by the mucous lining of your throat, causing irritation and the need to cough. Hayfever can also cause tickly coughs. The body reacts to the presence of pollen by releasing large amounts of the chemical histamine. This causes inflammation of the respiratory tracts, potentially leading to a tickly cough
- Digestive complaints - it is now known that acid reflux, part of what is called GORD or GERD (Gastro-oesophageal Reflux Disease) can also lead to a dry or tickly cough. This occurs as the acidic contents of the stomach travels upwards to the back of the throat and down into the upper part of the respiratory system. Tissues are irritated, triggering the cough reflex. This is more likely to happen when lying down flat and hence, symptoms are often worse at night
- Medication - lastly, some prescribed medicines can lead to a dry or tickly cough, in particular, those used to treat heart conditions and high blood pressure. If you think that this is the case with you, don't stop the medicine you are taking until you speak to your doctor.
Symptoms of a tickly cough
Tickly coughs are most often caused by viral infections and they will probably be accompanied by other symptoms of the common cold or flu such as an itch at the back of the throat, sneezing or a runny nose.
However, other symptoms which may accompany a tickly cough include some of the following:
- Sore throat – a tickly cough can develop into a sore throat because the action of coughing is harsh on the tissues of your throat and can cause inflammation
- Muscular pain in the chest or abdomen – this arises as frequent coughing can strain your abdominal muscles as they contract
- Sensitivity to other irritants – exposure to irritants such as pollen or cigarette smoke can make your cough worse.
Remedies for a tickly cough
- Water – especially when it comes to dry, tickly coughs, drier mucous membranes will only add to the problem. Keep properly hydrated in order to help keep your throat moist and prevent any further irritation. Aim to drink plenty of plain, still water daily – around 1.5l minimum and perhaps even more if you are still fighting a residual infection
- Vitamin C - Especially if your cough is the result of an infection, it could suggest that your immune system could do with some extra support. Vitamin C found in fruit is a great addition to your diet or why not add some slices of citrus fruits to some tea or hot water
- Honey - Traditionally used to help relieve sore throats, honey can be particularly useful to help soothe dry or tickly coughs too. Honey is particularly soothing for the throat and tends to leave a protective layer on the tissues lining the back of the throat. Manuka honey has a Unique Manuka Factor (UMF) which is thought to be especially beneficial if a bacterial or viral infection is present
- Steam – inhaling steam can help to hydrate a dry or irritated respiratory tract and may help to lessen some of the symptoms of a tickly cough
- Rest – especially if an infection has been at the root of the cause, resting will most likely help support your immune system and speed up the recovery process.
A tickly 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. For instance, research has shown that the herb echinacea reduces the severity of symptoms as well as the number of illness days. It has unique antibacterial and antiviral properties and helps to maintain the body’s resistance by strengthening the immune system.
If allergies or hayfever are at the root of the cause then Pollinosan may be helpful instead, or Digestisan if digestive troubles are a likely cause. Pollinosan Hayfever Tablets are non-drowsy and can help offer relief from the symptoms of hayfever and allergic rhinitis.
Next, there are some specific herbal remedies for managing a tickly cough:
Bronchosan cough syrup containing extracts of spruce or pine shoots, have been used traditionally to help soothe tickly coughs coming from the throat.
It is unlikely that antibiotics will help people suffering from a tickly cough as these drugs only work on bacteria and most tickly coughs are the result of viral infections. Antibiotics may be prescribed by your doctor if an underlying lung condition or a ‘secondary’ bacterial infection is present.
If an allergy is at the root of the cause conventional anti-histamine medications may help to manage your symptoms. PPI medications may be administered by your doctor if acid reflux is indicated.
Conventional medicines such as cough suppressants aim to reduce the activity of the cough reflex so may help to reduce symptoms in the short-term but may not help to address the underlying cause.
What should I look out for?
Please be aware, if you experience any of the following symptoms alongside a tickly cough you should visit your doctor:
- You are pregnant and have developed a persistent cough (many remedies and medicines may not be suitable for you so best to double check)
- Suffer from a persistent, unexplained cough (longer than 3 weeks)
- Severe cough that’s getting worse rather than better
- Coughing up blood
- Shortness of breath
- Pain in your chest with your cough
- Changes in your voice
- Swelling or lumps forming in your neck
- Unexplained weight loss accompanying your cough
- Notice a fever with increase temperature or headaches.
Initial publication date: 18/07/2013 Update on: 30/08/18