Epiglottis cough reflex?

You’re sitting on a park bench, enjoying the sunshine and picnicking with your friends when suddenly you take a bite of sandwich too big for your mouth. As you try desperately to swallow it down, your eyes widen in panic as you feel like it’s stuck in your throat. Then – hack, hack – out comes that coughing fit.

In this article, we’re going to talk about the epiglottis cough reflex – what it is, how it works and why our body uses such an unusual mechanism to protect us from choking hazards.

Let’s start from the Beginning

The epiglottis is an unusual little flap or cartilaginous structure located just above the voice box (or larynx). Its main function is surprisingly NOT to cover up when we drink water so we don’t choke (contrary to popular belief), but rather to prevent food from entering into our airways while eating. Cool right?

When we eat something that requires chewing/ swallowing/thinking hard about whether or not you should’ve gotten that large burger(we know someone came to mind);- basically anytime food comes close enough to our windpipe, two things happen:

1) The vocal cords close up,
2) The aforementioned flap called Epiglottis flattens against them which covers up ‘the hole’ to prevent aspiration i.e food going down wrong tube;

Sounds simple yet impressive? now imagine trying that over lunch with coworkers or people whose judgmental glares can be felt even through their eyemasks; situations have become dire since work-cations are more common these days than actual vacations.

We all wish for a world where choking incidents don’t exist because they seem embarrassing AF. However sometimes accidents happen… that’s where the epiglottis cough reflex steps in!

Epiglottis Cough Reflex: The Hero We Didn’t Deserve

When particles larger than mucus get into your airway, they can cause irritation which activates sensitive nerves in the trachea and bronchi tubes causing that ‘tickle/choking/stuck’ sensation sending a signal straight to the brain accompanied by our guardian angel who shots out an instant impulse straight back to them vocal cords we mentioned earlier; making them slam shut for once again god knows how many times this year.

It’s an incredible process because imma be real here, sometimes you just don’t have time to think before those windscreens of yours turn crimson right before coworkers (who were sure they got all their entertainment from Gossip Girl) It may make us feel embarrassed or ashamed when it happens but really?… it’s a sign our body is working properly – protecting us from actual harm.

Keys roles involved:

The epiglottis is not alone when it comes to saving lives! Many parts are at play during this process:

  • Trachea: Your windpipe has receptors that detect any foreign substances attempting entry
  • Larynx- voice box.
  • Bronchial Tubes- branching along with lower respiratory tract.

Okay… let’s simplify. These amazing beings work together giving rise to what we know as the amazing-in-a-weird-way cough reflex.

But wait… there’s more!

Kinds of Coughs…

Not all coughs are created equal fam. So clearly like everything else on this earth, different situations call for different kinds of hacksaw sounds ranging anywhere between a clears throat “ahem” type sound vs hacking away blocks made up entirely of phlegm(This was pretty much TMI buuuut some people resonate with descriptive pieces ykno’).

You’ve likely noticed that when you cough after eating McDonald’s, (Ha-ha. We all know someone who does!) the sound tends to have a different quality than if you were coughing due to something like choking on a piece of candy; because your body distinguishes here between true choking and fake “oh shame, i just swallowed wrongly” moments.

It’s even said that people with underlying medical issues are reportedly more prone to get what we call ‘postnasal drip’ causing them to cough pretty often throughout the day.

How Can We Make The Epiglottis Cough Reflex Work Better for us?

Alrighty so far it feels like there isn’t MUCH downside yet from having this amazing response system in play! However… since our time scrolling through social media isn’t saved by divine intervention… there might be moments like feelings of irritation or embarrassment, especially during times where being extra quiet is desired e.g classrooms, small groups etc.

The thing about anything done repetitively(yes this includes the good ol’ chuckle) is similar habits tend forming which would explain even though incorrect, those loud unnecessary honks at public events which come up irrespective of how much throat-clearing happens prior (disturbing no?)

If truly looking into ways to lessen such frequent demonstrations, regularly using devices such as salt water gargles or honey could ease sore throats and reduce fatty foods(high fat diets can actually increase mucus secretion). Humidifiers also help alleviate symptoms concerned with excessive coughing(irritation/itchiness)

When worst comes to worse….there’s always taking few days off work and indulge in series binge watching right? Wrong…


So there it is folks! A humorous take on one of our bodys’ amazing natural reflexes – Yes it may seem embarrassing but really? It gets us out of life-threatening situations. Keep eating, keep hacking and for the love of god avoid eating that burger larger than your head, unless you want to test it all 😉

PS: Where is Larry, I wanted his view on this – Sorry folks our buddy’s off trying to develop an alternative brand of capsaicin based icecream- it’s safe to say however…this article wouldn’t be complete without mentioning his name!