Why Your Body Does Odd Things

Kate Rope

Find out why you cough, sneeze, get goose bumps or a sore throat, and more.


An Eye Twitch or Other Tic

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What's happening?

The term "tic" in medicine can mean any number of involuntary things your body does. In this case, we're talking about those annoying little muscle twitches you get in your eye or other parts of your body, such as your knee, that bug you for a day or two for seemingly no reason. "A muscle is firing under your skin, because you are in a state of excitement or stress," explains Jeffrey Cain, M.D., president-elect of the American Academy of Family Physicians and the chief of family medicine at Children's Hospital Colorado in Denver.



Why is your body doing it?


"Your body is telling you that it is stressed or tired," says Cain. "In

the case of eye twitches, they can happen from fatigue, such as staring

at a computer screen all day."



What should you do?


"For most of us, these twitches are not a serious problem," says Cain. Generally, the body is just saying that it needs a break (tics can also be caused by anxiety and worsened by caffeine or alcohol). Cain recommends that you take steps to decompress at the sign of one: "Play relaxing music, talk to a friend, or focus on something else"-away from your computer screen, for instance. If those tricks don't help, or if the twitches continue to plague you, speak with your doctor. Tics can be symptoms of such conditions as Parkinson's disease, autism, Bell's palsy, or, in the case of eye twitches, an injury to the cornea.



Related: Do You Need to Worry About These Health Symptoms?




A Runny Nose


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What's happening?

When you have a runny nose, your body is responding to an invader, such as an allergen, a virus, or bacteria. Your immune system creates an inflammatory response, which increases blood flow to the area; this brings more blood cells to help fight the infection or allergen and also produces more mucous (which is normally present to keep your airways moist but is overproduced when you have a cold). In the case of an infection, the mucous helps surround and trap it, while immune cells in the small blood vessels that line your nose attack it. With allergies, the histamine cells in your nasal passages act up, creating inflammation. Mucous alone makes for a runny nose; accompanied by a lot of inflammation, it turns into a stuffed-up nose. "Sometimes the response can be too much," says Dale Amanda Tylor, M.D., assistant professor of otolaryngology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, "so your nose is completely blocked off or you have a hard time breathing or sleeping."



Why is your body doing it?


For the most part, a runny nose is the result of your body's efforts to trap foreign invaders and kill them with special immune cells. But there can be other causes. Eating spicy foods, smelling certain scents (or irritants, such as smoke), or experiencing an abrupt change in climate (such as coming into a warm house from the cold outdoors) can also trigger a runny nose. This is thanks to your parasympathetic nervous system (the part of your nervous system that governs functions like salivation and digestion) going into high gear. Some people also experience a runny nose when they cry. In that case, tear ducts blocked by overflow can drain down into the nose, but what actually runs out of it is tears, not mucous. In rare instances, a genuine runny nose can be a sign of serious illness.



What should you do?


Try an over-the-counter saline spray to help open up your nasal passages and improve drainage. If the stuff coming out is clear or white, chances are you don't have an infection and the instigator is more likely to be allergies. When the drainage looks green, it's more likely you have a bacterial infection (possibly in your sinuses, especially if you're also experiencing facial or dental pain); you should check in with your doctor to see if you need antibiotics. Get to the doctor, too, if you are producing clear or white drainage for an extended period-two weeks or more: In highly uncommon, though dangerous, instances, chronic clear nasal discharge with a salty taste that is accompanied by a headache (or follows some kind of head trauma) could be an indication that you are leaking spinal fluid, says Tylor.


Related: Weird Symptoms, Explained




A Cough


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What's happening?


When you cough, voluntarily or involuntarily, a deep breath of air enters your airways, causing your vocal chords (which are normally open, except when you are speaking) to slam shut, which leads to pressure building up under them. They then open quickly, and a huge gust of air accompanied by sound comes out. The force of a cough will bring secretions, such as mucous, out of your airway.



Why is your body doing it?


A cough is like the bouncer of your airway. "The lungs and surrounding area should be sterile, so the goal is to keep it perfectly clear down there," says Tylor. When your body suspects there is an infection or other unwanted intruder, it coughs to keep the area neat and clean, free of various irritants, secretions, and  infective agents.

Doctors like to talk about two kinds of coughs: wet and dry. A wet, or productive, cough is one in which your body is attempting to eliminate secretions that come from viral or bacterial infections or even acid reflux. Wet coughs bring up mucous. A dry, or nonproductive, cough is just what it sounds like-nothing comes up but air. Environmental irritants (such as perfume or strong odors) and asthma are two common causes of dry coughs.



What should you do?


The first thing you should do is what every preschooler learns: Cough into your elbow or sleeve or into a tissue, then promptly dispose of the latter and thoroughly wash your hands or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. This keeps your germs (and whatever illness you may be harboring) from infecting others.



To treat your cough, Tylor recommends: Staying well hydrated (bump up the juice and water, cut back on the caffeine) to thin your mucous.


Trying over-the-counter cough lozenges to soothe the tickle in your throat. Using saline drops or spray if postnasal drip is contributing to the cough. Trying an over-the-counter expectorant.


Tylor also cautions against giving cough-suppressant medications to children under the age of 6, since they are not necessarily effective and have been associated with a rapid heart rate and seizures in small children. Instead, she advises, focus on hydration: Try a bedside humidifier, use saline drops, and elevate the head of the child's bed slightly (a folded blanket under the mattress works well) to help the mucous drain properly.



Some coughs will need medical attention. Call your doctor if:


-You are coughing up blood.


-You are having difficulty breathing.


-You are also experiencing a high fever or persistent body aches.


-The cough lasts for more than two weeks.


Related: What Is Your Body Language Saying?




A Sneeze

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What's happening?


Sometimes a harbinger of illness, sometimes just a funny/annoying/necessary fact of life, this tiny interior explosion, like a cough, begins with an intake of air and the shutting of your vocal chords. But this time, when they release, the tongue and the uvula (that dangly thing at the back of your throat) block the air from coming out of the mouth, so it comes out of your nasal passages instead. And with it comes whatever secretions and germs are standing in the way.



Why is your body doing it?


Just as a cough keeps the riffraff out of your airway, a sneeze kicks out the would-be invaders of your nose: pollen, bacteria, viruses, and dust. "It's your body's way of keeping the nasal passages clear and the sinuses sterile," says Tylor. But there are other reasons your body may squeak out a sneeze. For instance, though doctors don't entirely know why, you sometimes sneeze when you look at a bright light such as the sun (a response known as a photic sneeze reflex).



What should you do?


Well, don't sneeze with abandon into a crowd-you'll be spraying germs. Instead, sneeze into your elbow, sleeve, or a tissue, and then wash your hands or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer directly afterward. Tylor says there is usually no harm in stifling a sneeze, but given that this is your body's way of clearing out something harmful, it is best to let nature take its course. Blowing your nose frequently when you have a cold will cut down on your body's need to release the irritants. If your sneezes are associated with fever, chills, muscle aches, or a cough, you may have a cold or even the flu and might want to give your doc a call. Sneezes that come on seasonally or when there is a change in the climate and are accompanied by itching  eyes or clear nasal drainage are more likely due to allergies, in which case your doctor can prescribe a medication to keep them under control.


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