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Cough it up

We all know that sensation of something not quite right in the throat that leads to a cough. Maybe it's something a bit deeper and you bring up phlegm - either way your body is trying to clear the respiratory tract behind your mouth by causing you pain and inconvenience! Here's an explanation of why and how we cough.


Why do we cough? Coughing is the body's way of clearing the throat. Whether it's an irritation, infection, or blockage the body wants to leave the airway clear. So we cough when we're sick, choking, or having trouble breathing.

Types of cough: acute, goes away in a couple weeks; subacute, goes away in 3 to 8 weeks; chronic, lasts longer

How does a cough happen? Coughing is actually a reflex - something we have no control over. Nerves that line the respiratory tract sense a problem and close off the larynx after a short intake breath. This causes the air pressure to build up as the respiratory muscles act, and when the larynx is re-opened the air is forced out through the mouth. We can also force a cough by using a large inhale of breath and then forcing it out harder by squeezing the respiratory muscles.

Productive coughs: These are the type of cough that brings up something, usually phlegm. This is because mucus drains from the nose, or is produced in the throat in response to the irritation, leading to extra mucus, or phlegm, in the airway. The force of the air from the cough carries it up to the mouth, where you can choose "swallow or spit?" Fancy term for this: sputum.

Sore throat: The constant force of air on the lining of the throat with too much coughing can cause a sore throat, this is then further aggravated by the mucus dripping down the throat from the nose.

Gross fact: Coughing takes physical energy, so much that an intense cough can break ribs

Cough medicines and syrup to the rescue? Not really. Some of these offer temporary relief by either drying out the mucous membranes, bringing up the phlegm that's currently there, or (for prescription medicines) slowing the reflex, but they don't help over the long-term. For the most part, it's just going to help you sleep a little while.

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