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To Cough or Sneeze - What is the Difference?

Dr. Michelle Frank


November 24, 2021
CoughPro is not a medical product. It is a wellness app intended only for users to obtain a better understanding of their cough. It is not intended to diagnose, monitor, or treat any illness.

We at Hyfe, Inc., are a company devoted to working on tools to better understand the importance of cough. It is Hyfe’s intention in the future to seek regulatory approval for medical products that analyze cough in order that they may be used to diagnose, monitor, and facilitate better treatment of respiratory illnesses.

A man sneezing

Sneezes and coughs have a common purpose. Above all, these forceful processes remove something that is disturbing the body. So why do we cough or sneeze rather than the other? Indeed, sneezes and coughs have distinct causes. 

Understanding Our Sneeze

A sneeze starts when a substance irritates part of the upper airways. For example, when something touches the hairs on the sensitive nasal mucosa, a sequence is triggered that results in sneezing.

During a sneeze our eyes close, the tongue moves upwards within the mouth, and a few muscles contract to produce the force needed for the sneeze. A combination of air and mucus might come out from the nose. Since it pushes out material within the respiratory system, sneezing can also spread infections.

A sneeze has several possible causes: exposure to allergens such as pollen and mold, infections, or pollutants. Interestingly, some people can even sneeze when looking up at the sun or having an orgasm

Understanding Our Cough

Similar to a sneeze, the cough is also a reflex that clears the respiratory pathways, commonly the lower airways. Foreign particles irritate the fine hairs or mucosa within the respiratory system, causing the forceful contraction of the related muscles that results in a cough.

Infections, smoking, exposure to allergens, and even some medications can cause a cough. In addition, some conditions such as heart failure or stomach acid reflux can also cause a cough.

Coughs that extend beyond eight weeks are described as chronic coughs. Following an infection, one of the lingering remnants is often a cough. Inflammation and irritation due to a chronic cough can further prolong the extent of a cough. Conditions such as asthma or a postnasal drip can also lead to chronic cough.

Cough vs a Sneeze

The irritants are mostly the same for both a cough and a sneeze. So what determines whether our bodies cough or sneeze? It has mostly to do with where the affected area is. 

A sneeze is the expulsion of an irritant through the nasal passage. Most importantly, a sneeze is related to the irritation of the upper nasal passages. The sneeze reflex is fundamentally the result of a stimulus to a specific nerve ending, the trigeminal nerve. This nerve branches off from the fifth cranial nerve. 

On the other hand, cough results from irritation or inflammation to the respiratory tract or surrounding structures such as the esophagus or heart. The biological feature responsible for the cough reflex is the vagus nerve. It branches off the tenth cranial nerve and has endings covering the airway surface (epithelium)

Brain parts
The final route cranial nerves take in the brain
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons

There are many more intricacies to both the cough and sneeze than are highlighted. However, even a basic understanding of their differences and similarities clearly shows how intertwined their functions are.

Tracking Our Coughs & Sneezes

Although coughs and sneezes result from a similar pathway within our body, there is often a significant difference between the cough and the sneeze. 

Symptom tracking provides an effective means to understand what the underlying cause might be. It is also instrumental in telling whether the therapeutic strategy is associated with improvements or not. Most often both the cough and the sneeze are related to an underlying allergic or infectious process. However, if a cough persists long after sneezing has stopped, it requires further investigation.

Beyond noticing a cough or a sneeze, a more holistic picture is essential. Signs such as shortness of breath, fever, chest pain, fatigue, and any blood or mucus production with a cough, can complete the picture, enabling a proper diagnosis. This complexity is why physicians don't diagnose based on only one complaint, on a single symptom, or an isolated test result.

A sneeze or a cough that occurs as a reflex and is a one-time event is rarely a cause for concern. These incidents are the body's way of protecting itself and taking care of its survival. However, further investigation is crucial when they are persistent, especially when an underlying cause is unknown. 

Your Cough Matters

Based on our results in Google Play & App Store
  • Excellent, insightful
    By dust mite dan - Apr 7, 2023 - App Store
    This app is easy to use, aesthetically pleasing and has provided me with useful information about my cough and disease patterns that have improved my overall health!

    Try CoughPro for Free
  • Great app!
    by Imtfx0019 — Dec 6, 2022 - App Store
    Impressed with how well it detected my coughs, even very slight ones.
    Try CoughPro for Free
  • App is Great!
    by HBert Quach — Jan 22, 2023, - Google Play
    App is great at tracking cough when little ones are sick. I treat it as a early warning indicator before the cold gets back. Customer service is awesome, they actually respond to all my questions.
    Try CoughPro for Free
  • Great Experience
    by Christi Hammock — Mar 7, 2023, - Google Play

    I had an issue logging into the new app but I contacted the support team and they were awesome in helping me figure out the issue. It turned out to be a technical issue which they resolved very quickly and I was kept in the loop on the status from start to finish. This app is really helpful when talking to my doctor too..
    Try CoughPro for Free
  • Impressive app
    By KayakTina - Apr 7, 2023 - App Store
    "The app accurately is recording my coughs with excellent ways to review the results. I can add notes to help me identify patterns or have accurate information for my physicians. I’ve hoped for an app like this for years to help me accurately track the amount of coughing I’m doing"
    Try CoughPro for Free
  • Accurate count of coughs
    by Beardonna — Mar 8, 2023 - App Store

    Just installed the app. Very accurate measuring coughs so far! Cannot wait to see how much coughing I do while sleeping. I'll have a better picture to discuss with my physician at my next visit.

    Try CoughPro for Free

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