News from Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital and Hospital Foundation
Have you ever wondered what causes some of the most basic functions in the body? The cough, for example, can occur deliberately or as a reflex. Also known as tussis, coughing is a voluntary or involuntary act that clears breathing passages of foreign particles, microbes, irritants, fluids and mucus in the throat. It is a rapid expulsion of air from the lungs.
Although coughing can be an indicator of a serious illness, more often it is the result of simply needing to clear the throat. While most of us give very little thought to a cough, there is actually more to it than one might realize.
Some germs use coughing to spread new hosts. There are a wide variety of causes for coughs, as well as numerous types of coughs. There are even some coughs that only occur at night. Coughing can propel air and particles out of the lungs and throat at speeds close to 50 miles per hour.
There are three phases of a cough. Inhalation, increased pressure in the throat and lungs with the vocal cords closed, and an explosive release of air when the vocal cords open, which is what gives a cough its characteristic sound.
The majority of coughs are caused by a virus and will clear up without medical treatment. The flu, common cold, and laryngitis are infections that occur in the upper respiratory tract. Bronchitis and pneumonia occur lower down from the windpipe in the lower respiratory region.
Coughing is an important reflex that helps protect your airway and lungs from irritants. An occasional cough is a normal and healthy bodily function. The throat and lungs produce a small amount of mucus to keep the airways moist and have a thin layer that works as a protective barrier against germs you may breathe in.
Acute coughs are the least serious and generally clear up within three weeks on their own or with home remedies. If it is a cough that makes an unusual sound like wheezing, whooping or barking, it may be a bigger problem and should be checked out.
Coughs can also be described as wet or dry. Wet coughs typically bring up mucus and are often accompanied by a runny nose or postnasal drip. A dry cough feels more like a tickle in the back of the throat and tends to occur because there’s inflammation or irritation in the respiratory tract, but there isn’t anything to cough up.
A paroxysmal cough happens when there are intermittent attacks of violent uncontrollable coughing. Paroxysmal coughing can be exhausting and painful. Sometimes people even struggle to get a breath.
Smoking, post nasal drip, gastro-esophageal reflux disease, asthma, and some medications such as ACE inhibitors can cause a chronic or long-term cough generally lasting over eight weeks. If a cough persists for three weeks without improvement, it is time to consider a visit to the doctor. In most cases it’s not likely something serious, but can be a sign of potential lung or heart disease.
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