We all know that annoying tickle in the throat that means only one thing. You’re about to cough it out.
Wouldn’t it be great if nobody coughed into the open air, spreading germs and mucus in all directions? Especially when you’re around.
Sometimes I wish we didn’t cough at all. How much better would a cough-free life be for all of us? Or would it turn out to be deadly?
A cough is a reflex that humans and many animals have. This noisy explosion, coming from deep in your lungs, isn’t something you can easily control.
But for this hypothetical scenario, you’ll have to ignore your reflexes and take your cough into your own hands. How would this play out?
Let’s see. Your cough doesn’t start in your lungs. It begins with you breathing in, and drawing air into them.
Then your glottis snaps shut, and puts a lid over your trachea. The muscles of your chest cage, abdomen, and diaphragm undergo a forceful contraction.
Normally, they push air out of your nose and mouth. But because the glottis is closed, a tremendous pressure keeps building up in the air passages.
When the glottis opens again, the air rushes through it very quickly. In a strong cough, that air can travel at speeds close to the speed of sound. And that’s what makes that barking noise come out of your chest.
In a cough-free world, your glottis wouldn’t shut, and the air wouldn’t get stuck in your lungs and trachea, and you wouldn’t make any barking noises. Sounds like an easy fix, right?
Not so fast. Coughing happens for a reason. It keeps our throats and airways free of irritants.
When foreign particles like dirt and dust get into your lungs, they irritate your airways. That, in turn, stimulates nerves to send a message to your brain.
And that message says something like, “All abdomen and chest muscles prepare to push the air out. That’s an order.” And that’s how your body gets rid of the stuff that it doesn’t need. That includes dust, dirt and mucus, and also bacteria.
If you never coughed, you wouldn’t be spreading germs and diseases to other people. But you would be infecting yourself.
Because coughing can be an indication of sickness, you might not even know you were sick. There would be more cases of lung infections, and more cases of respiratory failure. And some of them wouldn’t end up well.
In a world where nobody coughs, you’d have to practice social isolation to avoid inhaling any irritants that could make their way to your lungs. And it wouldn’t only last a month or two.
That isolation would be for life. Or you could wear a hazmat suit everywhere you go.
A cough-free world would be a very lonely world. Global isolation would cause anxiety and depression. Anxiety and depression would trigger a lack of productivity. The lack of productivity would make global economies collapse.
It seems counter-intuitive, but coughing is good for you. One study shows that a healthy person coughs about 11 times in 24 hours.
Coughing is so important to your survival that the medical community has developed the “assist cough” techniques to help people get the mucus out of their lungs when they can’t do it on their own.
Luckily, coughing is an involuntary reflex, just like blinking. You can’t turn it on and off whenever you want.
But you can at least cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough. Or, use your elbow. Just don’t cough into the open air, and most certainly, don’t cough on other people. And remember to wash your hands with soap.
- “Why Do We Cough: Possible Causes and Triggers”. 2017. doctordoctor.com.au.
- “That nagging cough”. Harvard Health.
- “Cough Etiquette: Why It’S So Important”. 2020. Health Essentials From Cleveland Clinic.
- “Anatomy and neuro-pathophysiology of the cough reflex arc”. Multidisciplinary Respiratory Medicine 7 (1). doi:10.1186/2049-6958-7-5.
- “How much coughing is normal?”. Archives Of Disease In Childhood 74 (6): 531-534. doi:10.1136/adc.74.6.531.
- “Mental health in the workplace”. 2020. World Health Organization.
- “Assist Cough – My Shepherd Connection”. 2020. myshepherdconnection.org.
- “What’s causing that cough? Top causes and how to get rid of persistent and dry coughs”. Jones, Caroline. 2016. Mirror.
- “Learn About Cough”. 2020. lung.org.
- “Cough | Chronic Cough | Acute Cough | Medlineplus”. 2019. medlineplus.gov.