By Paula Spencer, Caring.com senior editor
From a discreet tickle in the throat to a relentless “smoker’s cough,” coughing is a reflex we can’t resist. Though these odd noises that come up the respiratory tract and out the mouth are wordless, they have plenty to tell.
In fact, coughing is the top complaint people bring to doctors’ offices. “Coughing is a very general symptom that can reflect minor irritation or serious problems in the airways or the lungs themselves,” says internist and pulmonologist Norman Edelman, MD, medical director of the American Lung Association.
So what’s your cough saying? Here are six questions that lead to important clues.
Cough clue #1: How long has the cough been going on?
Not long; minutes or hours.
We cough because something irritates the nerves of the respiratory tract. The pest can be fleeting — a cloud of perfume or bug spray, an inhaled hot chili pepper, water swallowed the wrong way so that it clogs the windpipe. Or it can be something that hangs around longer, like dust, mucus, or stomach acid.
With any cough, first we take a short breath and then the voice box (larynx) closes. The abdominal and chest muscles contract, and pressure builds to release air from the lungs when the larynx reopens — whereupon whoosh, the fast burst of air whisks through the airways, clearing them. That’s important, because invasive bodies in the lower respiratory system can harbor bacteria that cause an infection in the airways or even pneumonia (infection of the lung itself).
For many sudden coughs, the drama ends when the airway is cleared and/or the offending substance goes away.