This is perhaps the most common one. In general, it’s caused by irritation coming from above the neck. Tickly coughs can be very annoying because sometimes no amount of coughing seems to make the problem go away.
A tickly cough is described by doctors as “non-productive,” as it brings up very little or no phlegm. The main cause is something doctors call “post-nasal drip.”
The lining of your nose and sinuses produces a small amount of mucus. When this tissue becomes inflamed, mucus production increases and the excess drips down the back of your nasal passages into your throat. Known as post-nasal drip, it triggers the cough reflex.
The most common reasons for post-nasal drip are:
If your tickly cough is the result of the common cold or another viral infection, try taking a tablespoon of honey mixed in warm water. If this doesn’t help, use the extract of spruce buds. If the cause is hay fever or allergic rhinitis, try an anti-allergy remedy.
A so-called “wet cough” appears from below the neck or in the chest. Each cough usually produces a clump of mucus, which explains why doctors refer to this kind of cough as “productive.”
Inflammation of the air passages in the chest leads to an increased production of mucus. As it accumulates, the cough reflex is triggered in order to clear out that mucus. Wet coughs are often worse in the morning because you tend to cough less as you sleep and mucus that collects overnight has to be expelled when you wake up.
The main causes of a wet cough are colds or flu. Symptoms can appear at the start of the infection but also tend to linger long after the viral infection has resolved.
Another cause of a wet cough is, of course, smoking. Smokers’ coughs tend to appear only after a number of years and the phlegm produced can be tinged black by the tar.
Lung infections such as pneumonia or bronchitis can also cause a wet cough. If the phlegm you produce is blood-stained or foul-smelling, if you’re short of breath, experience chest pain or have a fever, seek medical attention right away.
If you suffer from a wet cough resulting from a cold, avoid passive exposure to cigarette smoke. Light exercise can be beneficial, as is inhaling steam, which can help thin and loosen mucus. Herbs such as ivy, thyme and liquorice have been used traditionally for the relief of wet coughs and inflammation of the mucous membranes.
A dry cough arises from the chest (below the neck). It’s a non-productive cough, bringing up little or no mucus.
Whereas wet coughs are the result of the over-production of mucus, dry coughs are the result of other irritants in the upper respiratory tract, including:
- Viruses: Yes, colds and flu can lead to tickly, dry and wet coughs.
- Allergies: hay fever can contribute to a dry, tickly cough.
- Atmospheric factors such as smoke, dust and cold dry air
- Acid reflux: This is when the acidic contents of the stomach travel up to the back of the throat and irritate it. Also, small amounts of acid can be inhaled, causing further irritation.
- Other lung or chest conditions, e.g. bronchitis
- Prescription medication: Certain classes of medications, especially those for high blood pressure, can lead to a persistent dry cough.
Treatment of a dry cough will vary: your doctor might want to start by treating the underlying condition or might prescribe a change in medication.
A dry cough left over from the cold or flu can be treated with the herbs mullein and marshmallow.
A nervous cough is non-productive. Unlike the other coughs described above, no physical irritants are present. Doctors will only make the diagnosis of a nervous cough after excluding other causes.
Nervous coughs tend to worsen when you’re feeling anxious or stressed and improve when stress levels diminish. Another feature of nervous coughs is that they tend to disappear when you’re asleep.
Many theories have been proposed for the causes of nervous coughs, ranging from over-sensitivity of the vagus nerve to alterations in the way you breathe.
The key to managing a nervous cough is to address the stress and anxiety issues.
This term can be applied to any type of cough that lasts for more than eight weeks in an adult or four weeks in a child.
If you have an unexplained persistent cough, consult your doctor. It’s important to find the reason for your cough and exclude a serious health condition. This is especially important if you’re a smoker or have a family history of lung disease, such as asthma.
While it’s important to exclude treatable conditions, most persistent coughs don’t point to a serious health problem. Any of the minor health issues described above can lead to long-standing coughs; the most common reasons are post-nasal drip, allergies, acid reflux and smoking.
Coughing at night
Some coughs are worse at night. While this kind of cough can make it easier for your doctor to form a diagnosis, losing sleep because your cough is worse at night can wreak havoc the next day.
Reasons for nighttime coughing include:
- Viral infections: The extra mucus that results from cold and flu infections can pool in the wrong parts of your respiratory tract when you lie down.
- Acid reflux: The acidic contents of your stomach are more likely to travel in the wrong direction, into the back of your throat, when you’re lying flat in bed.
- Sinusitis: A change in posture might change the way mucus drains from your sinuses, worsening a cough when you lie down.
- Asthma – Characteristically, coughs resulting from asthma are made worse during exercise and can lead to coughing fits in the middle of the night.