As tickly coughs or dry 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 result from an irritation in the throat (pharynx) and the cough is triggered to relieve this feeling of irritation.
Tickly coughs are most commonly caused by cold and flu viruses.
We 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).
If our immune system is not able to overcome this infection, viruses enter the tissues of the upper airways, causing inflammation.
Unlike infection 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. Tickly coughs can linger days or weeks after the infection appears to have resolved.
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.
It is now known that acid reflux, part of what is called GORD or GERD (Gastro-oesophageal Reflux Disease) can lead to a dry tickly cough. What happens is that 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.
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.
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 may accompany a tickly cough:
- Sore throat – this is because the action of coughing is harsh on the tissues of your throat
- 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.