Why do we cough

Why do we cough? This explosive exhalation is a messenger of doom to some and a mere annoyance to others. We answer this and other questions about coughing.

RELATED: How To Describe A Cough?

Our incredible bodies are a complex system of actions and reactions which scientists have yet to comprehend. One of these fascinating reactions is coughing. But have you ever wondered about the reasons for, and the mechanics behind this somewhat odd behavior? 

COVID-19 has thrust the little cough into the spotlight. As the world’s best minds try to unpack and dissect this phenomenon, we wonder: Is coughing always a bad thing?

What Is a Cough?

Interestingly, coughing itself is not an illness. 

It’s either a symptom of an illness or a vehicle to rid our bodies of foreign matter. Coughing persistently is a sign that something isn’t quite right in our bodies, and it signals our conscious mind that we need to pay attention to it. 

In short, a cough is a spontaneous reflex that clears your airways. 

To be more specific or technical, coughing works like this:

  • The sensory fibers present in our trachea, throat, and upper bronchi link to a ‘coughing’ center within our brain. When something irritates these cells, they send a signal to trigger the cough mechanism. 
  • Next, we inhale.
  • The epiglottis (the opening to the trachea) closes.
  • The chest constricts and compresses the air in our lungs.
  • Finally, the epiglottis opens, and forces a burst of air out of our mouths, taking with it infected mucus and other irritants in a beautifully gross and far-reaching expulsion.
  • While there are many reasons for coughing, the mechanics remain the same.

Coughing Due to an Allergic Reaction

Someone with a history of asthma or a system sensitive to irritants is more likely to cough from an allergic reaction, but it can happen to anyone.

For some of us, perhaps those with a history of asthma or a system sensitive to irritants, inhaling anything that would trigger an allergic response, such as mold, is the most common reason for coughing. 

These hypersensitive bodies overreact to this irritant and experience inflammation and restriction to the airways. 

Pollen, pet dander, dust, or chemicals can have the same effect giving rise to a coughing fit, watering eyes, and shortness of breath.

Cough From Illness and Infection

While the body fights off illness, whether it be the common cold or a more sinister virus, coughing is likely to follow. We call this a productive or wet cough because it eliminates mucus from the lungs and airways. 

While this is beneficial, it can be painful or uncomfortable.

More severe illnesses such as Whooping Cough (Pertussis) result in paroxysmal coughing and frequent and violent coughing, making it difficult to breathe.

Cough From a Postnasal Drip

Whether from allergies or illness, we may suffer from postnasal drip. 

Mucus from a congested nasal passage drips down the back of the throat, causing an irritating cough. 

It’s usually not dangerous but can impact our sleep and make us seriously cranky. 
RELATED: Cough Frequency: What Do We Know?

When Does a Cough Become a Problem?

Sometimes we can overlook the seriousness of coughing because it is such a natural part of human life. Someone lights up a cigarette, or we pass by a glowing stick of incense, and we automatically start coughing. 

What should we be looking out for, both for ourselves and our loved ones, and when should we see a doctor?

When it comes to coughing, trust your instincts. In other words, if you think your cough warrants a visit to your doctor, then make an appointment. 

If, however, you’re unsure, follow these guidelines:

  • If your cough is causing chest pain or you are coughing up blood, then you should talk to your doctor.
  • A cough following a cold or flu is normal, but if it persists for more than a week, it’s advisable to see a doctor.
  • If you cough in conjunction with a high fever, extreme fatigue, wheezing, or an inability to swallow, then it’s certainly time to visit a doctor.
  • If, during coughing, the skin or lips take on a blueish tint and the person is unable to speak, then immediate steps need to be taken. They may be choking, or their lungs have become dangerously compromised.

What Can We Do?

COVID-19 has made us more than a little paranoid about coughing, and rightly so. We undoubtedly want to stay on top of any symptoms that would indicate a severe illness, both for ourselves and our families. 

This means doing whatever we can to identify ailments as soon as possible – prevention is unquestionably better than cure! 

So, make sure you understand the difference between an irritating cough and a serious problem.

In short, coughing is a natural reflex to help us clear obstructions. A cough can indicate a severe condition, but not all coughs are bad. If you’re concerned about your cough, speak to a healthcare provider.

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