Have you ever been in the middle of a hearty laugh only to be interrupted by an unexpected coughing fit? If so, you’re not alone.
Coughing when laughing is actually quite common and can happen for several different reasons.
In this article, we will explore the physiological mechanisms behind why people cough when they laugh and what can be done to prevent it.
We will also discuss some potential underlying causes that may require medical attention if symptoms persist or worsen over time.
By understanding the science behind laughter-induced coughing fits, we can better manage our own health and take steps toward prevention or treatment as needed.
Why Do I Cough When I Laugh?
Coughing when you laugh can occur due to the forceful air expulsion during laughter, which irritates the airways, causing a reflexive cough. In some cases, it may also indicate underlying health conditions like asthma or GERD, especially if symptoms persist or worsen.
Coughing when you laugh can have several causes:
- Reflex Action: The most common reason is simply that laughing involves a forceful expulsion of air from the lungs, which can irritate the airways and tigger a coughing reflex.
- Asthma: For some people, especially those with asthma, laughter can trigger coughing. This happens because laughter can cause the airways to constrict, leading to coughing in those with sensitive airways.
- Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD): Laughter causes the diaphragm to contract which could lead to stomach acids being pushed into the esophagus. This can irritate the throat and induce coughing in individuals suffering from GERD.
- Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD): In people with COPD, the airways and air sacs in the lungs lose their shape and become floppy. This can cause a buildup of mucus, leading to coughing when laughing.
- Upper Respiratory Infections: Conditions such as common colds, flu, or sinus infections can make the throat or airways more sensitive, causing coughing during periods of laughter.
- Postnasal Drip: This condition occurs when excess mucus from the nasal cavity drips down the back of the throat, causing irritation and potentially inducing coughing when laughing.
Note: If your symptoms persist or if coughing interrupts your daily activities, it’s essential to seek medical advice to rule out any serious conditions.
Laughter-induced coughing occurs as a result of a complex interaction between various physiological systems, primarily involving the respiratory and nervous systems. When we laugh, there is a forceful expulsion of air from the lungs.
This air rushes through the airways, and in doing so, it may cause irritation, stimulating the sensory nerves lining the airways. These nerves then send signals to the brain, initiating a cough reflex in an effort to clear the irritation or perceived obstruction.
In some individuals, especially those with respiratory conditions such as asthma or COPD, the airways are more sensitive and thus more likely to react to the forceful air movement caused by laughter.
Furthermore, the physical act of laughing can cause the diaphragm and abdominal muscles to contract, potentially leading to conditions like GERD, where stomach acid is pushed back into the esophagus, causing irritation that can also result in coughing.
Understanding these physiological interactions provides key insights into the pathophysiology of laughter-induced coughing.
Tips to Prevent Coughing When Laughing
Preventing coughing when laughing may involve several strategies, largely depending on the underlying causes.
Here are some general tips:
- Manage Underlying Conditions: If you have a medical condition such as asthma, GERD, or COPD that is causing the cough, managing that condition effectively is the first step. This often involves taking prescribed medications regularly and as directed by your healthcare provider.
- Stay Hydrated: Keeping your throat and airways hydrated can help soothe irritation that may lead to coughing. Drinking enough water throughout the day is beneficial.
- Avoid Irritants: If you’re sensitive to environmental factors like smoke or dust, try to avoid these irritants, especially when you expect to laugh, such as when watching a comedy show or spending time with friends.
- Use a Humidifier: If you’re prone to coughing due to dry air, using a humidifier can help by adding moisture to the air in your home or office.
- Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle: Regular exercise, a balanced diet, and sufficient sleep can boost your immune system, helping to prevent respiratory infections that can make your airways more sensitive.
- Quit Smoking: If you smoke, consider quitting. Smoking can irritate the airways and make them more susceptible to coughing when you laugh.
- Avoid Overeating: Overeating, especially before you’re likely to laugh a lot, can exacerbate GERD symptoms, including coughing. Try to eat smaller meals and avoid lying down or laughing hard immediately after eating.
Note: Laughter-induced coughing is usually harmless, but it’s essential to be aware of any other symptoms or factors that could indicate an underlying health issue.
Treatment for coughing when laughing is usually directed towards the underlying cause:
- Over-the-Counter Remedies: Cough suppressants and lozenges may provide temporary relief for minor, occasional coughing fits.
- Prescription Medication: If an underlying condition such as asthma, GERD, or COPD is causing your cough, your healthcare provider may prescribe specific medications such as bronchodilators for asthma, or proton pump inhibitors for GERD.
- Lifestyle Modifications: Avoiding triggers such as smoke or dust, staying hydrated, using a humidifier to moisten dry air, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and quitting smoking are all approaches that can help manage the symptoms.
- Physical Therapy: In some cases, a respiratory therapist may be able to guide you through exercises that help control your breathing and potentially reduce coughing fits.
- Surgery: In very rare cases where severe GERD is the cause of coughing when laughing, surgical options may be considered to tighten the lower esophageal sphincter.
Note: It’s essential to consult a healthcare professional if you’re frequently experiencing coughing fits when laughing. They can provide personalized advice and help you navigate the best treatment options for your specific situation.
When to See a Doctor
Experiencing a cough when laughing is generally not a cause for concern and can often be attributed to harmless physiological responses.
However, if the coughing is persistent, severe, or is interfering with your daily activities, it may be indicative of an underlying health condition, and you should consult with a healthcare professional.
Similarly, if your cough is accompanied by other symptoms such as shortness of breath, wheezing, chest pain, or if you notice blood in your sputum, seeking medical attention is paramount.
This could be a sign of serious conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), severe asthma, or even lung disease.
It’s also advisable to consult a doctor if over-the-counter treatments aren’t alleviating your symptoms, or if the coughing occurs alongside persistent heartburn, which could suggest gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
Remember: Your health is precious, and it’s always better to err on the side of caution when unusual or persistent symptoms arise.
FAQs About Laughter-Induced Coughing
Why Do I Wheeze and Cough When I Laugh?
Wheezing and coughing when you laugh could be due to the forceful expulsion of air from the lungs that irritates the airways, triggering a reflexive cough.
If you have a respiratory condition like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), your airways are likely more sensitive, making this reaction more pronounced. Wheezing may occur due to the narrowing of the airways during this process.
Why Do I Get Dizzy When I Cough or Laugh?
Dizziness when you cough or laugh could be a result of changes in your blood pressure or momentary reduction in blood flow to the brain.
These actions require a forceful effort that may temporarily reduce the amount of blood that reaches your brain, causing a dizzy sensation.
If this dizziness is persistent or causing you distress, it’s essential to seek medical attention, as it could indicate an underlying condition needing treatment.
Why Do I Cough Only When I Laugh Too Hard?
Coughing only when you laugh too hard is likely due to the rapid and forceful expulsion of air from your lungs during intense laughter.
This process can irritate the lining of your airways, triggering a cough reflex. In most cases, this is a normal response and isn’t cause for concern.
Why Do I Cough and Choke When I Laugh?
Coughing and choking when you laugh could be due to the sudden and forceful expulsion of air from the lungs during laughter, which can irritate the airways and stimulate a cough reflex.
If you’re laughing while eating or drinking, this could also momentarily disrupt the coordination between your breathing and swallowing, leading to choking.
If this happens frequently or is causing significant distress, it’s important to consult a healthcare professional.
Why Do My Ribs Hurt When I Cough and Laugh?
Rib pain when coughing or laughing is often due to the vigorous contraction of the muscles involved in these actions.
These activities can strain intercostal muscles (the muscles situated between the ribs), causing discomfort or pain. If the cough is chronic, or the laughing is intense, this could lead to persistent rib pain.
Is Wheezing When Laughing Normal?
Wheezing when laughing is not typically normal and may indicate underlying respiratory issues such as asthma, COPD, or allergies.
While occasional wheezing due to forceful laughing can happen, especially in people with sensitive airways, frequent wheezing with laughter accompanied by symptoms like shortness of breath or coughing warrants medical evaluation.
Why Do I Get a Chesty Cough When I Laugh?
Getting a chesty cough when you laugh could indicate that mucus or phlegm is present in your airways or lungs, and the act of laughing is helping to loosen this material.
The forceful nature of laughter can stimulate the cilia (tiny hair-like structures in the airways) to move, which helps to push the mucus up and out, resulting in a chesty cough.
This could be due to a variety of reasons, including a respiratory infection, chronic bronchitis, or COPD.
Understanding why we cough when we laugh is more than just an interesting exploration of human physiology; it’s a journey into the interconnectedness of our bodily systems and our emotions.
As we’ve seen, this common phenomenon often has simple explanations, but it can also be a sign of more serious health issues.
Furthermore, the knowledge gained empowers us to better manage these situations, implement preventive measures, and make informed decisions about when to seek professional medical help.
Just as laughter is a vital part of life’s joy, maintaining our health is crucial for fully enjoying those moments of mirth.
So, the next time you find yourself coughing in the midst of laughter, you’ll know there’s a whole world of science behind it, and you’re not alone.
John Landry is a registered respiratory therapist from Memphis, TN, and has a bachelor's degree in kinesiology. He enjoys using evidence-based research to help others breathe easier and live a healthier life.
- Reeder JD, Wolf J, Andelman S, Andrew BJ. The cough/laugh syndrome: MR evaluation. AJNR Am J Neuroradiol. 1990.