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Why Does My Body Do These Odd Things?

November 05, 2013

Washington Hospital Lecture Focuses on How the Body Works and Tips for Staying Healthy

Have you ever wondered why your body does some of the things it does? Why do you cough or sneeze? What is the purpose of mucous? What actually happens when food “goes down the wrong tube?”

“Our bodies have a lot of common actions that are a mystery to people,” said Dr. Dale Amanda Tylor, a pediatric otolaryngologist with Washington Township Medical Foundation and a member of the medical staff at Washington Hospital. “We all get coughs and colds, we all produce mucous, but why do these actions happen and what can we do about them? I think helping people understand how their bodies work will also help people know how to deal with some of these things and when it’s serious enough to consult a physician.”

She will talk about these and other body functions at an upcoming lecture titled “Why Does My Body Do These Odd Things?” scheduled for Wednesday, November 13, from 7 to 8 p.m. The talk is part of Washington Hospital’s Evening Lecture Series and will be held at the Washington Women’s Center Conference Room, located in Suite 145, at 2500 Mowry Avenue (Washington West) in Fremont. To register, visit www.whhs.com or call (800) 963-7070 for more information.

With fall allergies and the cold season already starting, Dr. Tylor will talk about some of the related bodily functions, including runny nose, sneezing, and coughing. These can be symptoms of an allergy or a cold.

A runny nose occurs when your body is responding to an invader such as an allergen, virus, or bacteria. Mucous is normally present to keep your airways moist, but when your body detects an invader, your immune system creates an inflammatory response, she explained. This causes more mucous to be produced.

Cold or Allergy?

Dr. Tylor said an over-the-counter saline spray can help to open up your nasal passages and improve drainage. If the mucous coming out is clear or white, you probably have an allergy rather than an infection, she added. If it’s green on the other hand, you may have an infection.

“I really want to encourage people to use the saline spray first before grabbing an over-the-counter cold medicine or asking your doctor for antibiotics,” Dr. Tylor said. “Antibiotics only work on bacterial infections and too much antibiotic use can create drug-resistant bacteria.”

A cough is also a response to an unwanted intruder. When your body suspects there is an infection or other invader, it coughs to keep the area free of various irritants, secretions, and infectious agents, Dr. Tylor explained.

When you cough, a deep breath of air enters your airways, causing your vocal chords to shut, which leads to the buildup of pressure. She said the vocal chords then open quickly and a gust of air comes out, accompanied by the coughing sound.

The most immediate action to take for a cough is to cover your mouth with the crook of your arm or cough into a tissue to avoid spreading germs. Dr. Tylor said over-the-counter cough suppressants should help to ease the symptoms, but cautioned against giving them to children under the age of 6. She recommends a humidifier or saline drops for young children.

A sneeze also starts with an intake of air and the shutting of your vocal chords. But with a sneeze, when the vocal chords open, the tongue and the uvula (which dangles in the back of your throat) block the air from coming out of your mouth, so it comes out of your nasal passages, she explained. Just as a cough keeps invaders out of your airways, a sneeze keeps them out of your nose.

Cover Your Mouth and Nose

Take the same precautions as a cough to avoid spreading germs, she said. Blowing your nose frequently can help to reduce the amount of sneezing you do because it reduces the body’s need to release the irritants.

Dr. Tylor will also talk about bodily functions that aren’t necessarily related to colds and allergies. For example, what happens when food or liquid goes down the wrong pipe? What does that mean?

“When food or liquid goes down the wind pipe, or trachea, it is called aspiration and it can be deadly,” she said. “It’s the key reason we have to watch toddlers closely when they start eating solid food.”

The wind pipe or trachea takes air into the lungs. It is located right in front of the tube that leads to the stomach called the esophagus. The trachea opens when you breathe and closes when you swallow. But occasionally when you take a breath while swallowing, food or liquid can go down the trachea instead of the esophagus, Dr. Tylor explained.

“Our bodies are complicated machines,” she added. “It helps to know how and why they work so you can take better care of your own body.”

For information about programs and services offered by Washington Hospital that can help you stay healthy, visit www.whhs.com.

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