Why Controlled Coughing Helps COPD and How to Do It Right

Woman coughing

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Having a cough can be a real drag, but it does serve a number of purposes: For starters, coughing is a natural defense against foreign or toxic substances that you may have breathed into your lungs from the environment. It's also the body's way of clearing mucus from airways.

If you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), however, your cough reflex likely has been weakened by long-term exposure to some sort of irritant, typically tobacco smoke. This can make it difficult to expectorate or clear your lungs, of mucus. And when mucus is allowed to build up in the warm, moist environment of the lungs, it can become a hotbed for bacteria, leading to infection and increasing the risk of COPD exacerbation, a serious increase in the severity of symptoms.

How to Perform a Controlled Cough

Not all coughs are created equal though. Explosive, uncontrolled hacking does little to clear airways. In fact, a violent cough can cause the airways to collapse, making it even more difficult to clear them of mucus.

An effective cough is one that's controlled and that comes from deep within the lungs to loosen and mobilize mucus. It's something you can easily learn to do with practice. And once you've mastered the technique, you can call on it whenever you need it. These steps from the Cleveland Clinic will help you get started:

  1. Sit upright in a chair or on the edge of a bed. Place your feet firmly on the ground, lean forward a bit, and take a few deep breaths to help your body to relax.
  2. Fold both arms across your abdomen and breathe in fully through your nose.
  3. As you exhale, lean forward a little more and press your arms against your abdomen. Open your mouth slightly and cough two or three times. Each cough should be short and sharp and you should feel your diaphragm move upward.
  4. Breathe in slowly by gently sniffing throughout the entire inhalation. This will prevent mucus from being pushed back into the airways.
  5. Rest and repeat if necessary.

You may want to cough into a tissue and note the color, thickness, or overall appearance of what you bring up. If you notice any significant changes, let your doctor know.

Tips for Perfecting Your Technique

To get the best from controlled coughing, incorporate these simple tips:

  1. Stay hydrated. Sticky mucus can be difficult to cough up. To help keep it thin and easy to expectorate, drink plenty of water throughout the day—at least six to eight glasses.
  2. Use a bronchodilator before you do controlled coughing. This will relax your airways to allow mucus to move more easily. ted, mucus clearance is more difficult.
  3. Slow down your breathing. After coughing, keep your breaths slow and shallow. If you inhale sharply and quickly it can interfere with the movement of mucus out of the lungs—precisely the effect you want to avoid.
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