How do you handle the need to cough or sneeze in public? Courtesy

Who’s afraid of the big, bad cough?

Have you succumbed to the fear? Not the fear of getting the dreaded coronavirus, but the fear of people around you thinking you have.

If you have, you’re not alone. I, too, have tasted the tension over this last parcel of time. There was the one time I was out scavenging for groceries, mask on, and something went wonky in my throat. No, a bunch of bacteria did not leap into my mouth and elbow each other for space on the way down. (At least I hope not.) Instead, I momentarily forgot how to swallow properly (all these decades and I still haven’t learned to do this 100% of the time), or there was a shard of food stuck in my throat, perhaps an almond from my stash of car snacks. Can’t go shopping on an empty stomach, you know.

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So there I was, standing in the middle of the King Soopers produce section, valiantly trying to bag some broccoli so its vitamin C, folic acid and fiber could help my immune system fight off sly viruses, and I have to cough something fierce.

Do you recognize yourself here? Have you taken your healthy self out in public, face covered, adequately distanced and, bam, you need to cough? Or sneeze an innocent “achoo” without receiving a death stare or silent pox on your house from those around you?

These are the days of holding it in, friends. That’s what I did. I clamped down like I’ve never clamped before. I willed that cough back inside, down my trachea and into my gut. My eyes watered, my cheeks puffed. I tried to appear like an Ultimate Fighting Championship match wasn’t going on inside my body. And it worked. That time.

I also like to go on daily walks, and if there’s a cool wind, my nose runs a little. Maybe yours does, too. Nowadays, though, instead of pulling out my handy tissue at the first sign of leakage, I wait until there’s nobody around so they don’t think I’m cavorting through the world, infecting all my fellow fresh air seekers.

This doesn’t seem right or healthy. We’re all just mere mortals, with bodies that regularly hiccup, cough and other things that I’m too polite to write about here. (Though my editor did say, “People would rather you toot in their presence than sneeze.”)

I felt better when I turned to the masses for reassurance. Keith Willschau found himself in a Colorado Springs King Soopers last month with a huge sneeze begging to be released from his petite nostrils.

“When I realized the sneeze was not to be tamed, I knelt down, and sneezed into my right armpit, through my new mask,” he says. “I looked up immediately to ensure no one was around. I wanted to scream ‘I’m COVID-free, this is the first time I have left my house in weeks.’ I quickly left that aisle as if it was the scene of a crime.”

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And perhaps he saved himself a big old medical bill by heeding nature’s call. A Google search of “What happens if you suppress a sneeze?” turns up some eye-opening results. Men’s Health reports, “Your ears can be at risk. When you hold in a sneeze, air and pressure can travel up your eustachian tubes — small passageways linking your throat to your middle ear — and cause your eardrum to rupture.” The website Healthline.com lists a number of other less than desirable potential outcomes: middle ear infection, aneurysm and diaphragm injury.

Some of us have now actually resorted to updating those within hearing distance of our medical status. Is this what it’s come to? Maybe we should all wear name tags wherever we go: “Hello, my name is Jennifer, and sometimes I choke on my own phlegm. But I’m not sick. (Hopefully.)”

“I’ve coughed at the grocery store (from) allergies and been given very dirty looks, even when I claim out loud that it’s allergies,” says Christine Dyar. “I’m afraid that once I go back to work, I will be sent home for coughing behind my mask. I understand people’s concerns and fears, but there are many causes to coughing and sneezing, in addition to COVID-19.”

It’s true. Other known cough producers, according to the American Thoracic Society, include air pollution, smoking, being exposed to smoke and cold air.

On the other hand, how do you feel if you’re out and about, getting groceries or takeout or taking a walk, and encounter a human with their own biological need to cough? Do you cover your face with the crook of your elbow and hightail it out of there? Do you mentally spew epithets at said cougher? Or do you live and let live? Assume the best of your fellow hominid and carry on, forgoing the immune system-depressing cortisol and adrenaline that fear and panic will send coursing through your body?

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Oh, the fear, shame and judgment — the other viruses we’re all co-existing with these days. None of us want anybody to die or get sick, and we also all want to avoid the whole Frankenstein and angry villagers with torches situation. It makes me sad that these days we all look at each other as living, breathing weapons of biological warfare. And I fear this might be the case for many moons to come.

But what to do? I have no answers. No pretty, little bow to tie it all up. I can only wish you the ability to accept yours and others’ bodily functions, and the courage to sneeze into your sleeve (through your mask, naturally, and hopefully in an unpopulated location), cough into your hanky, blow your nose if it runs and cheerfully smile at anyone who looks askance.

Contact the writer: 636-0270

Contact the writer: 636-0270

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