Deal with the “Ahem” bug and asthma tickle

Recently I read a piece of advice: “Always take longer to breathe OUT than you take to breathe IN”.

If you realise that you sometimes hyper-ventilate, or get a tickle that means you’ll frequently clear you throat, or your body responds to changes of temperature and onset of damp weather clogs your passages for a while…

… well, that one bit of wisdom could save you from embarrassment, from having to rush for a hot drink, from having to reach for an asthma inhaler or whatever you find you have to do.

That advice captures the essence of a way I had taught myself to “breathe out of it”.

In my early adulthood I had heard about Abdominal Breathing. Singers know about it: they talk of breathing through a hole in their backs, using their diaphragms. That gets air right to the bottom of the lungs, rather than shallow breathing up near the shoulders. When you take a deep breath your rib-cage widens, but your shoulders do not move at all. I trained myself to breathe that way all the time, and it keeps you more calm and healthy.

However certain triggers — talking a lot, rush and tension, changes of weather — sometimes set off a tickle or, worse still, a coughing bout. Once I realised what was happening inside my lungs, I worked out what I could do. A website about Asthma for Kids showed a diagram of lungs with stale air accumulated at the bottom of the lungs (because the breathing had been too shallow). It had not had a chance to escape (because the breathing had been too rapid). It meant a lot to me to see that diagram, because it enabled me to devise a “Kill the tickle” strategy.

I sit down and take 3 deep abdominal breaths, exhaling slowly after each. After the third exhalation I rest and concentrate on NOT breathing, for as long as I can resist. That gives time for some of the stale air to leave the lungs.

When I have to breathe again, I do, but again I do a few deep breaths and again wait. I visualise that stale air getting out. After 3 or 4 repeats of this sequence I generally find my breathing passages are more relaxed and any irritating clogs of mucus are sufficiently dislodged. Then I do one business-like cough to shift the irritation.

You will know when a huge cough is going to help. Stand up, purse you lips out as tightly as possible (like a goldfish) and put as much energy into the cough as possible. That’s when I go to fetch a hot drink to keep those passages relaxed, and think about what I had just been doing — was I tense, rushing about, talking too much, or do I need to put on warmer clothing?

Whatever the reason had been, I could have avoided the problem if, as that wise person put it, I had always taken longer to breathe out than I took to breathe in.

You can trust your body to do the “In” part. But you may need to control the “Out”.