Cough

Updated 26 September 2017

7 ways coughing can injure your body

The average cough lasts between two and three weeks and usually causes no serious physical damage – but beware when a cough turns violent!

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A cough is the rapid expulsion of air from the lungs to clear the throat and airways of mucus, foreign particles, fluids, microbes and various irritants.

A 2013 review found that the average cough lasts around 18 days. After more than eight weeks, a cough can be regarded as chronic and it is advisable to seek medical advice.

According to a previous Health24 article, many people let a persistent cough go untreated for too long. A doctor can help you find out if your cough is symptomatic of something more serious.

'Structural damage'

A cough can sometimes affect your health in unexpected ways. Apart from indicating illnesses like TB and some cancers, a chronic cough can also cause social embarrassment, interfere with sleeping patterns, as well as cause headaches and urinary incontinence.

But that's not all – violent, persistent coughing can actually cause “structural” damage to your body:

1. Muscular pain

Persistent coughing can lead to chronic muscular pain. Every time you have a coughing fit, strong pressure is generated, which can strain muscles and cause pain.


2. Cracked ribs

Rib fractures caused by chronic coughing mainly occur in women. The middle ribs along the side are mostly affected. Lower bone density is a risk factor, but cough-induced rib fractures can also happen in people with normal bone density.


3. Damage to small blood vessels

Violent coughing fits may cause fine blood vessels (in the anus and nose, for example) to burst, leading to haemorrhage. 


4. Rupture of the diaphragm

The diaphragm contracts during the expiratory phase of a cough. During forced respiratory movements, the diaphragm is pushed upward while the ribs are pushed inward and downward. This opposing action can sometimes result in diaphragmatic rupture.


5. Abdominal hernia 

Although damage to the abdominal wall after coughing is rare, it may require surgical intervention. Both abdominal herniations and abdominal muscle tears have been reported. Abdominal muscle tears are difficult to detect and tend to occur in patients with chronic bronchitis. However, abdominal hernias caused by cough are easier to detect.


6. Tissue damage in the throat

Persistent coughing can cause throat infections, which can lead to an infection risk to other parts of the body. A chronic cough may also cause inflammation in the tissues of the throat. 


7. Coughing up blood

The medical term for coughing up blood is heamoptysis. If you're coughing up small amounts of bright red blood or frothy blood-streaked saliva and phlegm, it usually indicates blood from your lungs due to prolonged coughing or a chest infection.


Image credits: iStock

 

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Professor Keertan Dheda has received several prestigious awards including the 2014 Oppenheimer Award, and has published over 160 peer-reviewed papers and holds 3 patents related to new TB diagnostic or infection control technologies. He serves on the editorial board of the journals PLoS One, the International Journal of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease, American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Medicine, Lancet Respiratory Diseases and Nature Scientific Reports, amongst others. Read his full biography at the University of Cape Town Lung Institute.

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