A sore or itchy throat and cough are two of the most common symptoms that bring people to a doctor. These symptoms often occur together, as irritation that causes your throat to be sore can also trigger a cough. A wide range of conditions can lead to cough and throat irritation, but the duration of these symptoms and the presence of other accompanying symptoms can help determine the underlying cause. A local infection is most common, but other possibilities include allergies, environmental irritants and certain long-term conditions.
Allergies are one of the most common causes of an itchy throat and cough. Inhalation of allergy-provoking substances such as pollen, mold spores or pet dander can trigger an immune response and cause your throat to feel itchy. Allergies also commonly inflame the lining of the nose and sinuses. Symptoms of this inflammation include a runny nose, nasal congestion and postnasal drip, which can irritate the throat and cause coughing.
A scratchy throat and cough caused by allergies are often accompanied by itchy, watery eyes and runny nose but not by fever. All of these allergy symptoms can often be relieved with over-the-counter antihistamine drugs. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, if your symptoms have lasted longer than 7 to 10 days, it is more likely to be allergies than a cold. Allergy symptoms typically come on suddenly and are often seasonal.
Infections of the upper respiratory system frequently cause a scratchy throat and cough. The common cold is often the culprit. Like allergies, a cold causes a runny nose and postnasal drip that irritates the throat and triggers a hacking cough. The symptoms of a typical cold peak in the first 3 or 4 days and then gradually disappear within a week to 10 days. Bacterial sinus infections can cause the same symptoms, but they last longer and may be accompanied by fever and facial pressure or headache.
A throat infection can directly irritate the throat, leading to discomfort and a dry cough as well. Most throat infections are viral, but the bacterial infection called strep throat is also a possibility. Acute bronchitis, which is an infection of the lungs, causes a persistent, hacking cough that can make the throat feel scratchy. A runny nose and nasal congestion are usually absent with bronchitis.
Exposure to inhaled irritants can cause throat discomfort and cough. A vast number of airborne particulates and fumes can irritate the throat. Tobacco smoke, including secondhand smoke, is a common example. Other irritants include factory emissions, traffic fumes, chlorine or other cleaning solutions. Inhaling these types of chemical irritants can inflame the lining of the throat and result in discomfort and possibly cough.
According to a review of factors leading to sore throat published in the October 2012 issue of "Inflammation Research," snoring, shouting and overuse of the voice are also common irritants of the throat that lead to discomfort. The mechanism behind an itchy throat due to snoring is likely mechanical as mouth breathing dries the normally moist tissue lining the throat.
In addition to allergies and infections, other medical conditions can cause a sore, itchy throat and coughing. People with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) sometimes experience throat irritation and cough if the stomach contents flow upward into the throat. Frequent heartburn and sour burps can be a tip-off. Cancers of the throat and leukemia are less likely causes of throat discomfort and cough in some people. Difficulty swallowing, a feeling that something is stuck in the throat, unintentional weight loss and fevers may signal an underlying cancer.
Other conditions that can sometimes cause throat irritation and cough include thyroid disease, asthma and tuberculosis, though they typically cause other more prominent or noticeable symptoms. Some medications can also cause a chronic cough that may lead to a scratchy throat. ACE inhibitors, which are used primarily to treat high blood pressure and heart disease, are a common culprits of otherwise unexplained cough. Examples of ACE inhibitors include benazepril (Lotensin), captopril (Capoten), lisinopril (Prinivil, Zestril) and enalapril (Vasotec).
When to See a Doctor
In most cases, an itchy throat and cough are due to minor illnesses or temporary irritation that will go away without medical treatment within a week or so. If your symptoms last longer, are worsening or become severe, a visit to your doctor is in order to determine the cause and best treatment -- especially if you experience:
-- Swollen glands or a lump in the throat.
-- Difficult or painful swallowing.
-- Unintended weight loss.
-- Night sweats.
-- Coughing up blood.
-- Chest pain.
Seek emergency medical treatment if you experience difficulty breathing.
- American Family Physician: Evaluation of the Patient with Chronic Cough
- Merck Manual Professional Version: Cough in Adults
- American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology: Colds, Allergies and Sinusitis — How to Tell the Difference
- Inflammation Research: Environmental and Non-infectious Factors in the Aetiology of Pharyngitis (Sore Throat)
- American Family Physician: Pharyngitis
- American Family Physician: Diagnosis and Treatment of Acute Bronchitis
- Family Practice Notebook: Pharyngitis Causes
- Cummings Otolaryngology -- Head and Neck Surgery; Paul W. Flint, et al.
- Family Practice Notebook: Chronic Cough