What is a Tickly Cough?

A.E. Freeman

A tickly cough, also known as a dry or non-productive cough, is not accompanied by mucus and usually occurs after a person is exposed to dust or another irritant. The cough is a symptom of some other disease or problem. Some people may get this type of cough as they are recovering from the common cold or the flu. Other causes include asthma, allergies and certain medications.

Tickly cough can be caused by the environment.
Tickly cough can be caused by the environment.

There are generally two types of coughs, those that produce sputum, or mucus, that either dripped down from the nasal passages or came up from the lungs, and the tickly cough, which is dry and has a rough, abrasive sound. When someone coughs, it is because his body is attempting to expel an irritating object, such as a piece of dust or a particle of smoke, from the lungs. If dust and debris make it into the lungs, bacteria can grow on them, leading to a lung infection such as pneumonia.

A tickly cough does not produce phlegm.
A tickly cough does not produce phlegm.

A tickly cough is one symptom of a type of asthma known as cough variant asthma (CVA). People who have CVA usually do not have the wheezing or trouble breathing that is commonly associated with the condition. Instead, they suffer from a chronic, dry cough. For some, the cough becomes worse at night and can disrupt their sleep.

Honey cough drops help to ease a tickly cough.
Honey cough drops help to ease a tickly cough.

CVA can be brought on by taking beta-blocker medications or by exercising. For some, CVA is caused by sinusitis or another upper respiratory infection. Tickly cough caused by asthma can be treated with an albuterol inhaler or by inhaling steroids.

A tickly cough caused by asthma usually can be treated with an inhaler.
A tickly cough caused by asthma usually can be treated with an inhaler.

Tickly cough also can be caused by the environment. Dry, climate-controlled air, such as that found in air-conditioned or heated offices or homes, can irritate the airways and lead to a dry cough. A person who is exposed to dust or chemical fumes on the job may also develop a cough. Wearing a mask at work can help prevent or lessen the coughing.

Hot tea with honey may soothe a troublesome cough.
Hot tea with honey may soothe a troublesome cough.

A person can treat his cough several ways. Cough suppressants can be helpful but also can cause harm if overused. Expectorants used to treat productive coughs will not help a dry cough.

The best way to treat a tickly cough is to soothe and moisturize the airways. A person can try drinking hot water with a bit of honey mixed in or hot tea with honey. Cough drops also can help calm a cough. Someone whose sleep is disrupted by coughing may try elevating his head with an extra pillow or placing a humidifier in his room.

Tickly cough are most often caused by irritants like dust.
Tickly cough are most often caused by irritants like dust.

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Discussion Comments


I know some people are a lot more sensitive to air in an environment than others. I once worked with a woman in an office setting that had a constant dry cough.

I know this was uncomfortable for her, but it also drove everyone around her crazy. Even though we knew it wasn't a contagious cough, we had to listen to her cough all day long.

I don't think she did anything on a regular basis for any cough treatment. She said she didn't cough like that when she was at home, so maybe it was something in the air at work.


My husband has worked construction for many years, and has probably inhaled a lot of chemicals and fumes that are not good for him.

Over the years, he has developed a dry cough, that seems to be worse at night and in the winter time. In the summer, the air is humid and his cough is better. When the air gets really dry in the winter is when he has the most problems.

We try to keep a humidifier going in the house so it isn't so dry. He has had chest x-rays and everything always looks OK, and they have never been able to find anything wrong.

The best treatment for his dry cough is to keep the air around him from getting too dry. Sometimes he doesn't have much control over this and this is when he will suck on a piece of hard candy or a cough drop.


I get a tickly dry cough from time to time and never know when this is going to happen. It can be embarrassing if I am in a meeting or a public place.

I always try to make sure and keep some cough drops with me which usually help for awhile. Even though the drops help soothe my throat, I know it is only a temporary solution.

The same thing happens to my mom, and she has never been able to figure out the cause of hers either. I don't think it is anything really serious, it just gets annoying.


I don't have asthma or an infection but I get a dry tickly cough often. It happens mostly after a meal. All I feel is an irritation in my throat and then I will dry cough for the next fifteen or twenty minutes. Drinking water helps most of the time, but it can make it worse too.

What else can I do as a dry cough treatment?

I wish I could have honey. I know that honey is an anti-inflammatory and helps a lot with coughs. But I'm a diabetic and I'm not allowed honey. I really don't know what else I can do.

Any suggestions?


@alisha-- I'm glad you were able to identify the cause and stop the bad habit! Sometimes I see chain smoker who are coughing their lungs out and continue to smoke! It's horrible.

I have allergies so I get persistent dry cough whenever I'm in an environment that has a lot of dust or in the spring time when there is a lot of pollen. Now I know what causes it and either try to get away from that place or take allergy medications. But when I first started getting tickly cough, I had no idea why it was happening.

Around the same time, I had just adopted a cat and started to worry that I was allergic to her fur. I went to the doctor who told me that my lungs were clear and I was clearly allergic to something. After some allergy tests, I found out that I'm allergic to dust and the dust in my central heating system was giving me tickly cough. I had my heating system cleaned and my cough resolved just as yours.


Drinking something hot and soothing definitely helps with a tickly cough. But if you want to treat the cough itself and not just the symptoms, try to figure out the root cause.

When I was in college, I had taken up hookah smoking because it was the trendy thing to do. All my friends were spending free time at a nearby hookah cafe and it had become our hang-out spot. After several months of regular hookah smoking, I developed a constant, tickly, dry cough that wouldn't go away.

The cough didn't have any phlegm and sounded like it came from very deep. I ignored it for some time until I went home for summer break. My mom who is a nurse heard me coughing and ordered me to stop smoking right away. I did and the tickly cough went away after a month! Clearly, the smoke from the tobacco had irritated my lungs and was causing the cough. I can't believe I didn't realize this earlier and stop smoking.

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