Sunday, November 1, 2009

Nuances of phlegm expulsion

So, it's the sickly season and then some. H1N1 is striking with germy venom, regular run-of-the-mill colds and viruses are leaping onto new hosts with glee, and the air around is generally so contaminated that one is afraid to take a breath. And don't scratch that tickle below your brow, for goodness' sake—the urge to rub your eye will be far too strong. (Although I'm still not certain whether viruses can enter through the eye, I consider it to be an orifice of sorts, albeit plugged with your eyeball, and I'm not taking any chances.)

But the ill surroundings have made me aware of an uncanny ability most of us have by the time we're adults: we can read a cough. Sometimes we can read it superbly. I sat in church today, and a baby coughed behind me. How did I know it was a baby? I don't know, exactly, but I did; I even suspected it to be a female baby. Then I turned later to confirm it, and sure enough, the cough was coming from a tiny child, about 6 or 8 months old. A little girl with pink Mary Janes. What made her small cough different from others? The timbre was too high to be an adult's, and the little noise she made didn't sound as if it had traveled very far on its way out. I don't know how else to describe it, but I think you'll know what I mean.

Church is a good place to test this theory, because it's a rather quiet space and there's a large sampling of humanity from which to draw data. I remember a few years ago that Todd and I both noticed the same insistent, seemingly endless cough that we heard week after week. We both knew it was a woman before we'd located the back of her head, and we both noted that the cough was a rather wet sound, indicative of something chronic. Lo and behold, we met her last year—a lovely, charming miss who happens to have cystic fibrosis.

Think about it: can't you usually guess correctly the approximate age of the cougher? Often, even in children, the sex of the coughing victim? Can you not often predict whether a cough will be accompanied by a nasty, snotty nose or watery eyes? Sometimes you can even tell how many days or weeks the person has been coughing, because those lingering, dry coughs of the late-stage head cold are so easily identified. It's quite amazing, really, the amount of overwhelmingly accurate information you can garner from merely listening to someone as they attempt to clear their lungs or stop a squirrelly bronchial spasm in its tracks.

I really did hear the message today, too—I wasn't just listening to sickies and trying not to breathe. But one can't help noticing.

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