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About five or six years ago, I developed a small tickle in my throat. I thought it was from jogging daily in a city with pollution. But it persisted even after I’d switched to indoor exercise. And then, I can’t recall exactly when, there were two remarkable incidents.

The first was at a conference where I’d stayed up too late and spent too much time with friends at a bar. I felt terrible the next day and, yep, got sick. Afterward and for the rest of the day, I had a dry cough that wouldn’t go away (remarkably, it stopped for the duration of a one-hour speech I had to deliver, but came back right after). It was crazy. I couldn’t get a word out without coughing.

The second was at a New Year’s party. We’d flown in that morning (overseas flight, party in the EU) and rallied to go to the party. But my heartburn was so bad, I’d barely had anything to eat or drink. Just the same, when we got back to where we were staying, I got sick and it was incredibly acidic. From that day on, I’ve had on and off dry coughing.

A few contributing factors I think pushed my stomach to be more sensitive, other than just aging: 1) I put on about 20 lbs after a knee injury that paused my exercise (I’m back to exercising but haven’t lost the weight) 2) for a long while, I was staying up way too late on my iPad and getting as little as 4-5 hours sleep per night… lack of sleep definitely increases my coughing 3) virtually everything on the “don’t eat” list for gerd is something I like. I have a hard time resisting. When I cut back on bread, by the way, it seems to help a lot. 4) there was a period where I took a lot of daily Advil due to neck pain and headaches. After almost a year of misery, that pain went away when a chiropracter cracked my neck (I know, I know… quack medicine… but it worked instantly, so what can I say?).

As I said, over the years, it’s been on and off. Mostly on. And when it’s on, it’s miserable not just for me, but for all the people around me who both worry and have to put up with it. Coughing all the time was especially difficult at the height of COVID worries, because people had a scared reaction to the slightest “ahem.” There were even times when I’d cough so badly my throat would freeze up and I couldn’t breath at all. That was terrifying. Fortunately, that seemed to abate.

But the lulls in daily coughing fits that seem to be linked to behavioral changes are as follows: 1) I did have someone prescribe proton pump inhibitors and H2 blockers. And that did work, almost miraculously, for a while. The cough was gone within 3 days and stayed away as long as I took the medicine consistently. But I had concerns about the long-term effects, which are ominous. Proton pump inhibitors, for instance, list “early death” as one of the possible outcomes. They also cause polyps in the colon. And frankly, I didn’t feel so great on them. Plus, it didn’t seem right to so aggressively suppress stomach acid which, after all, you need for digestion.

So I went off them. The acid rebound was miserable for about a month and then subsided. I was fine for a while but the cough did eventually come back, the more lax I got about looking after sleep health and diet. I went back on them again one or two more times, but hated it. And they gradually started to work less anyway. During the COVID lockdowns, I was overseas in a place where they were not sold over the counter and I had to go off them again. I haven’t taken them since.

By the way, during the time that I was taking them, the meds suppressed the acid so much that I got a fungal infection in my throat (thrush) and had to gargle an extremely unpleasant medication multiple times per day for six weeks. It made me gag every time. That can’t be right. This is also part of what made me think I had to find a way other than drugs.

And there have been non-medicated periods that helped. For instance, I did a dry January and — though I was mostly just giving up the glass or two of wine I typically have with dinner — by the end of the month coughing was gone and so was the tickle. I’m not sure if it was the no alcohol or the fact that I combined this with a low-carb diet and extra sleep, in an aggressive health push. But I reaped that benefit for nearly five months, when it started to come back around again.

What I’ve found helps pretty consistently is getting 7 to 8 hours sleep a few nights in a row; cutting back on bread and sugar; and any time I lose weight, even just 5 lbs. I’m writing this, in fact, to try and psyche myself up to more aggressively pursue all three of those healthier activities.

And in case you want to know, I’ve had the tube shoved down my esophagus (while awake, which was my choice but a huge mistake). The doctor said he found a significant hiatal hernia which would have to be operated on. And yet — more quack medicine — I found some Youtubes that discussed manipulating the hernia back into place, which is not supposed to be possible, and I’ll be damned it seemed to work. When I got a barium swallow done, the doc said there was no sign of it. I’ve also had a few ENT throat things where they stick the camera in your nose. Each has said my larynx looked pink and inflamed, but not otherwise suspect.

I’ve just had a period of late nights of work for over two months and coughing got pretty bad. Now that my project has ended, the coughing is a little less. Next plan is to more aggressively cut back on wine with dinner and bread during the week and to try to get more sleep. We’ll see what happens.

This is a miserable, nagging condition and if you have it, you also have my sympathy. I hope I find some way to get rid of it once and for all. I play music and would love to be able to sing again without coughing.

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