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Why Does Coughing Make Me Throw Up

by Clara Wynn
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Why Does Coughing Make Me Throw Up

Why Does Coughing Make Me Throw Up

Why Does Coughing Make Me Throw Up? You’ve probably had a few of those days where you wake up with a dry mouth and a terrible headache — but what do you do when your cough persists? You might be in need of some Tums to try to sooth your stomach from all that coughing, right? But before you reach for any medication or even another piece of toast, consider an alternative: Your body may not actually have been craving food at all.

What happens if you’re coughing while lying in bed on a Sunday morning after waking up feeling ill? What’s going on inside your body as it tries to fight off infection? And how does this affect the amount of fluid that ends up in your gut during these bouts?

“When we talk about coughs [and their effects], there are two parts of the system,” says Dr. Michael Eisenberg, assistant professor of medicine at Stanford University via email. “One is respiratory which includes breathing, muscles involved in breathing (diaphragm), and lungs. The other is the immune response system.”

Infectious diseases like colds and flu trigger a chain reaction within our bodies’ immune responses. This begins with the nose becoming inflamed and producing more mucus. As the virus gets closer to the lungs, the mucus thickens and becomes watery. Once the virus reaches the lower airways, it causes the cilia lining the bronchial tubes to become shorter and thinner. The shortened cilia can’t sweep away the mucus effectively, leading to congestion. From here, the bacteria can enter the bloodstream and spread throughout the body.

This is why coughing makes people feel worse, sometimes quite severely. It’s also why coughing makes us want to throw up. Or vomit.

“As a general rule, the longer the duration of the illness, the greater chance one will experience nausea/vomiting symptoms,” Eisenberg explains. “These symptoms typically occur between 24-48 hours after onset of the fever. If someone has a short duration of cough then they should expect less nausea/vomiting symptoms.”

But what exactly is happening with our bodies during these coughing fits? Why does throwing up seem to happen most often following a bout of coughing?
Dr. Laura Haynes, associate professor of pediatrics at Columbia University Medical Center who specializes in pediatric infectious disease, says that the same exact process occurs when children get sick with upper respiratory infections, such as strep throat.

Streptococcus, the culprit behind strep throat, produces toxins that attack cells in the body. These toxins prompt the body to release histamine into the blood stream. Histamine is responsible for causing inflammation within the nasal membranes. When kids start coughing, more mucus collects in the back of the throat, making swallowing difficult. In order to compensate for this difficulty, the child swallows more quickly, which leads them to choke on fluids. That’s why many kids end up developing rales, which is a loud wheezing sound caused by mucus buildup in the chest. These sounds can lead to vomiting.

Haynes adds that older adults who develop similar symptoms from a viral infection are susceptible to aspiration pneumonia, meaning that the person inhales something that goes down the wrong pipe, such as a sip of liquid or a large bit of food.

So why don’t we just drink lots of liquids if it really helps? Because it doesn’t.
“It only increases the production of phlegm and reduces its drainage through the nose,” she explains. “[E]ven though drinking water may help in terms of hydration, it won’t reduce the overall discomfort associated with coughing because the mucosa is already congested due to the phlegm.”

And what about medications that claim to relieve sore throats? They work, but not necessarily for everyone.

“[T]here are no studies showing that over-the-counter antihistamines improve the severity of cough compared with placebo,” Eisenberg notes. “There are studies showing that nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) reduce the severity of pain and inflammation. NSAIDs are used commonly to treat coughs associated with allergies.”

While it seems pretty clear that coughing itself isn’t particularly pleasant (or healthy) for us, it’s important to note that coughing is necessary for clearing out debris and germs from the lower airways. So instead of trying to suppress coughing, let yourself take deep breaths and relax. Just remember to wash your hands thoroughly after each episode.

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