Updated 04 September 2017

Here's why coughing can be good for you

However annoying it may be, coughing is not always a bad thing.

Coughing is associated with conditions and diseases like colds, flu and TB, and has therefore always been a personal and public health concern. 

But did you know that coughing can actually be good for you?

Many people believe that coughing is a sign of a serious underlying medical condition and want to rush to the doctor – but more often than not it's caused by nothing more than an irritant in one's windpipe and lungs.

A natural bodily function

A cough is a normal reflex. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), this bodily function helps clear your airways of irritants, thereby preventing infection. It's a defence mechanism to protect your body from foreign particles that have entered your windpipe and lungs.

These foreign particles can include dust particles in the air, smoke, mucus, phlegm, or allergens like pollen perfume and mould.

Health24 explains how the cough reflex works:

1. Air needs to be inhaled into the air passages when the glottis (the vocal cords and the opening between them) opens.

2. Air is forced out of the lungs and the air passage when the muscles of the chest cage, abdomen, and the diaphragm contract. This happens while the glottis is closed.

3. Once the glottis opens, air is expelled, resulting in a cough.

Coughing can also be deliberate. We often clear our throats before we speak or to get someone's attention.

But this doesn’t mean that coughing cannot be a cause for concern.

More serious conditions

Coughing can be a sign of a wide range of medical conditions, minor or major. Possibilities range from a foreign body in the airways to something more serious like cystic fibrosis, congestive heart failure, and lung cancer.

But how do you know when your cough is indicative of something serious?

A cough is normally classified according to its duration:

  • Acute cough – less than three weeks
  • Subacute cough – between three to eight weeks
  • Chronic cough – more than eight weeks

Persistent coughing causing severe discomfort should not be taken lightly and needs to be examined by a doctor.

If your cough does not go away on its own after a few days, NIH suggests that your doctor consider your medical history of cough-related conditions, conduct a physical examination, and test results when doing a diagnosis. Your cough will then be treated accordingly.

Image credit: iStock.


Ask the Expert

Cough Expert

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.

Still have a question?

Get free advice from our panel of experts

The information provided does not constitute a diagnosis of your condition. You should consult a medical practitioner or other appropriate health care professional for a physical exmanication, diagnosis and formal advice. Health24 and the expert accept no responsibility or liability for any damage or personal harm you may suffer resulting from making use of this content.

* You must accept our condition

Forum Rules