How Controlled Coughing Helps COPD

It's One of the Most Effectives Means of Airway Clearance

A woman with a severe cough.
A woman with a severe cough. DRB Images, LLC/Getty Images

Mucus production and long-term cough are two of the most troubling symptoms of COPD. But learning controlling coughing techniques can help clear your airways and help you breathe better. Here's how it works and what you need to know about an ineffective cough and an effective cough.

How Does Controlled Coughing Work?

If you have COPD, long-term exposure to tobacco smoke or other airway irritants have damaged your airways, leaving your cough reflex weak.

This can make it difficult to cough up, or expectorate, mucus efficiently. All that mucus eventually builds-up and starts to pool in the airways, impeding airflow and increasing the risk of infection. Finally, because bacteria thrive on warm, moist environments, it begins to multiply in the lungs, increasing the risk of COPD exacerbation.

Coughing is the body's own natural defense mechanism against foreign material, substances and chemicals. It's also one of the most effective means of airway clearance. In COPD, coughing can be used as a tool for everyday living to aid in the removal of mucus.

Ineffective Cough vs. Effective Cough

Not all coughing is created equal. In order for coughing to do it's job, it must be effective. Explosive, uncontrolled coughs do little for airway clearance. In fact, a violent cough can collapse the airways making mucus clearance much more difficult. On the other hand, an effective cough is one that's controlled.

Controlled coughing is not shallow; it comes from deep within your lungs to loosen and mobilize mucus.

Controlled Coughing Technique

Learning to cough effectively takes regular practice. Once you've mastered the technique, you can call upon it whenever you need it. Here are the steps you'll need to get started:

  1. Sit upright in a chair or on the edge of your bed. Place your feet firmly on the ground and take a few deep breaths. Allow your body to relax.
  2. Wrap both arms across your abdomen. Using diaphragmatic breathing (belly out, breathe in) inhale deeply through your nose. If possible, hold your breath for three seconds.
  3. As you exhale, lean slightly forward. With your mouth slightly open, cough two to three times while pushing firmly on your abdomen with your arms. Keep your coughs short and sharp. If you feel your diaphragm move upward when you cough, then you're doing it correctly.
  4. Inhale slowly and gently through your nose, "sniffing" through the entire inhalation. This prevents mucus from being pushed back into the airways.
  5. Spit your mucus into a tissue and observe. Be sure to note the amount, color and tenacity and report any changes in your sputum production to your physician.
  6. Rest and repeat if necessary.

Tips to Facilitate Mucus Clearance

Controlled coughing works best under certain circumstances.

There are a few things you can do to help make controlled coughing most effective.

  1. Stay Hydrated: Mucus that is tenacious and sticky is more difficult to expectorate. Staying well-hydrated liquifies mucus making it easier to expel. Unless your physician tells you otherwise, drink six to eight glasses of water every day.
  2. Use a Bronchodilator Inhaler: When your airways are constricted, mucus clearance is more difficult. Use your bronchodilator inhaler before you perform the controlled coughing technique to relax your airways so your cough is more productive.
  3. Control Your Breathing: Avoid taking quick, deep breaths after you cough. This type of breathing may interfere with facilitating mucus clearance.

Once you've perfected controlled coughing, keep in mind that it's not the end all be all of COPD treatments. The technique is most effective when coupled with other methods of airway clearance. This includes the utilization of conventional chest physiotherapy and airway clearance devices.

Check out these resources for more information about airway clearance.

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