Cough It Up


Here, in the midst of the corona crisis, the cough has become Public Enemy #1. Sneezing is a close second, though it has rarely borne the same stigma as a cough, normally evoking supportive “God Bless You” responses. (Item: During the anti-German hysteria, following America’s entry into World War I the word “gesundheit” was declared illegal.) In today’s fraught climate the cougher has become a social pariah, a thoughtless assailant.
Not much new here. Coughing has traditionally prompted alarm, signaled serious underlying ailments – whooping cough, influenza, pneumonia, tuberculosis, severe asthma – all producing worrisome coughing, so much so that writers and playwrights have often set characters to coughing as a way of communicating health problems ahead (tuberculosis being perhaps the most common literary device).
Coughing, an individual action, also has an observable social dimension, so it is to certain such situations that we turn:
The Crude Cougher – Just about every child was instructed, repeatedly no doubt, “to cover your mouth when you cough,” neither a natural or automatic response, especially when it erupts instantly and unexpectedly. Who wants to deal with a sticky, yucky cough residue on your hands? So, what children frequently neglected to do carried over into adulthood. But covering the mouth also had its downside, became especially offensive and thoughtless when that same person subsequently shook hands with another! The single random cough may not concern us, but continuous coughing does raise alarms. We expect this individual offender to offer a reasoned explanation and, if necessary, to distance himself.
Cougher Rationales – Coughers, feeling guilty, often attempt to normalize their hacking. “Not to worry. It’s a smoker’s cough.” – “I’m over the cold. This is just what’s left.” (A favorite of parents hoping to return their kid to school.) – “There’s just a tickle or frog in my throat.” – “I just swallowed the wrong way.” – “It’s my allergies acting up.” Will anxious bystanders take comfort in such explanations?
Cough Contagion – In a group setting one cough is likely to spread. It grants permission for others to do likewise. Listen to what happens during those quiet intervals between movements of a classical symphony. As if on cue, coughing ripples through the audience. Coughing is catching. And when lots of folks indulge no one person can be held accountable.
Cough Cover-ups – Expect strategies to be employed to mask bouts of coughing. Playing loud music or generating some form of noise can provide the necessary sound barrier. Also, watch people suddenly turn away, distance themselves, even leave the room, in order to cough unobserved. Some even manage to merge their cough into a more socially acceptable sneeze or an inoffensive “clearing of the throat.”
Counterfeit Cough – Feigning a cough can substitute for verbal communication. A brief muted cough can register mild dissent to an issue under discussion. Such a contrived cough can also serve to announce yourself, alerting, for example, a service person nowhere to be seen. Also to avoid startling someone unaware of your presence. Should you choose to beg off an upcoming obligation, a well-timed cough will explain and confirm your unavailability.
Cough Suppression – As a child my parents led me to believe that when I began coughing it was largely my fault and my punishment. I hadn’t dressed warmly enough and became chilled; or I’d gone out into the rain without wearing rubbers, or insisted on playing with a friend I knew to be sick. My coughing, therefore, meant I’d been negligent, ignored their directives. I recall doing all I could to keep from coughing in front of them, lest it expose my misdeed. To suppress a cough I’d draw deep breaths, swallow repeatedly, suck on a candy and drink lots of water. If I were in bed, I’d cough into my pillow to muffle the sound. I was frantic. On occasion I succeeded, but just as often the reprimand, “I told you so,” greeted my failed efforts. Among adults cough suppression proceeds in much the same way, with the results at best limited.
The corona onslaught will, in due course, pass but all of us will, in many a future occasion find ourselves coughing once again, but also coping in one way or another with one of our body’s more insistent and socially alarming warning signs.

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