What type of cough do you have? Dry and tickly, or productive?

Have you got a cough? Wondering the best way to treat it? Discover the difference between a dry and tricky cough, and a chesty, productive cough, and what to do about it.

We’re entering cough season (in our house it’s already arrived!) so thought it would be helpful to put together a short guide to the different types of cough, and what might help them.

But first, what even is a cough? And why do we get them?

What is a cough?

A cough is the body’s protective reflex, an attempt to eliminate foreign objects from the respiratory tract. It is quite common for a cough to accompany or follow a cold or flu infection.

A cold will often cause swelling and irritation in the throat and upper airways and the body perceives this swelling as an object, which it tries to expel by coughing.

Mucus is produced by mucous membranes lining the respiratory tract in order to trap invading bugs, and this mucus can then be expelled via a cough.

What causes coughs?

Here are some of the common things that can cause a short-term cough:

  • An upper respiratory tract infection that affects your throat, windpipe or sinuses, such as a cold.
  • A lower respiratory tract infection that affects your lungs or lower airways, such as bronchitis.
  • An allergy, such as hay fever.
  • A flare-up of a long-term condition like asthma.
  • Inhaling dust or smoke.

Persistent coughs can sometimes be caused by smoking, a long-term respiratory tract infection, asthma, an allergy or conditions like bronchiectasis or a prescribed medicine.

How can you treat a cough?

Cough remedies are among some of our oldest medicines. Today, both conventional medicines and licensed herbal remedies are available to treat coughs. But before you can start taking anything for it, you need to identify what type of cough you have.

How to tell if you have a dry or tickly cough

A cough can be productive or non-productive – a polite turn of phrase that describes how much or little mucus you bring up when you cough.

A dry cough is a type of cough that produces little or no mucus or phlegm. It is very similar to a tickly cough and often, these terms are used interchangeably. Both dry coughs and tickly coughs are known as non-productive coughs.

Natural remedies for dry or tickly coughs 

Generally speaking, a cough suppressant will help to dampen down the irritation of a dry and tickly, non-productive cough. They work by soothing and reducing the urge to cough. 

It’s also important to drink plenty of liquids to stay hydrated. Sucking on cough drops or hard sweets can also help as it promotes saliva production that soothes the throat.

A favourite herb for dry coughs is spruce or pine. Try Bronchosan Pine Cough Syrup, to help relieve dry, tickly and irritating coughs. For children over the age of four, you can use A.Vogel’s Cough Spray for Kids. Both contain honey, which is naturally soothing.

How to tell if you have a productive cough

A productive cough, unlike its dry and tickly cousin, produces plenty of runny stuff. It’s also known as a ‘chesty cough’ or ‘mucus cough’. Chesty coughs are characterised by the amount of mucus they produce. Your natural reflex is to cough up or ‘expectorate’ this mucus to help clear your chest.

Natural remedies for chesty coughs

If your cough is productive, you will need an expectorant to help bring up the excess mucus in your airways. Expectorants thin and loosen mucus from the respiratory tract, encouraging its expulsion. 

Ivy is an example of a herb that exerts an expectorant action, as well as being antispasmodic. Thyme, one of our oldest herbs, can also help to thin mucus and relax the bronchial tract, making it particularly helpful for hacking coughs and catarrh.

Liquorice, another old favourite, is widely recognised for its expectorant properties. Bronchoforce Chesty Cough, (avogel.co.uk) combines all three and is used to help relieve chesty coughs resulting from excess mucus or catarrh in the respiratory tract.

Can you treat a cough with honey?

Hot water and honey can also help. Good quality honey, such as manuka honey, can be soothing on your throat, which may be sore from coughing; it also has anti-bacterial properties. Add a slice of lemon for some added vitamin C and extra immune support. 

Do coughs get worse at night?

If your cough is worse at night use extra pillows to raise your head slightly. This will help to prevent any mucus from collecting at the back of your throat and triggering your cough reflex. 

Whether your cough is productive or non-productive, staying properly hydrated will also help to speed your recovery. 

When should you see a doctor about your cough?

Most coughs clear up within three weeks and don’t require any treatment. However, if your symptoms persist or you cough up blood, you must consult your healthcare professional or GP. A persistent cough can also be symptomatic of a more serious illness. 

The NHS also recommend speaking to a doctor if you experience shortness of breath, breathing difficulties or chest pain, or you have any other worrying symptoms, like unexplained weight loss, a persistent change in your voice, or lumps or swellings in your neck.

By Alison Cullen, a nutritional practitioner.