Could the Desire to Cough be a Reflex We’ve Imagined?

A recent study has claimed that the desire to cough can be reduced psychologically, as the irritation may not be just a reflex action. The study, carried out by researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia, made all of the participants in the study breathe in a small amount of capsaicin, which is a throat irritant. They were previously given some inert gas which didn’t impact their need to cough. However, some of the participants were told that the gas wouldn’t be able to help them when it came to coughing, and others were told that they were given liodcaine – a local anesthetic. The results of the study showed that people who were told they had consumed a local anesthetic had a 45 percent lower urge to cough, compared to the other participants. This study shows that the urge to cough can be controlled with psychological willpower, by certain thought centres in the brain.


Professor Omer Van den Bergh, from the University of Leuven in Belgium, explained that it is as though the brain has some occasion to control when it needs to cough, and when not to. Other studies show that the brain does respond to placebos, with people suffering from depression or even urinary problems reacting positively to placebo treatments. Sometimes, the effect of counselling or anti-depressant medicines can influence the effect as well. Lead researcher Stuart Mazzone exclaimed that the team were surprised by the effect of placebos in this study – a placebo is generally effecting around 25 to 30 percent where pain reduction is concerned.


The study confirms that placebos can be as effective in reducing coughing as some anti-cough medicines can be. While this is the case, researchers are unsure why it is that we respond so well to the placebos when we feel the need to cough. It’s thought that the cough reflex in people is less hard-wired than the pain reflex, as the latter is more necessary for survival. Researchers are keen to analyse this subject further in order to see whether the brain can be made to believe that a substance can soothe a cough.

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