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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.