Cough is a vital protective reflex that is triggered by both mechanical and chemical stimuli. The current experiments explored how chemosensory stimuli modulate this important reflex. Cough thresholds were measured using a single-inhalation capsaicin challenge. Experiment 1 examined the impact of sweet taste: Cough thresholds were measured after rinsing the mouth with a sucrose solution (sweet) or with water (control). Experiment 2 examined the impact of menthol: Cough thresholds were measured after inhaling headspace above a menthol solution (menthol vapor) or headspace above the mineral oil solvent (control). Experiment 3 examined the impact of rinsing the mouth with a (bitter) sucrose octaacetate solution. Rinsing with sucrose and inhaling menthol vapor significantly increased measured cough thresholds. Rinsing with sucrose octaacete caused a non-significant decrease in cough thresholds, an important demonstration of specificity. Decreases in cough reflex sensitivity from sucrose or menthol could help explain why cough syrups without pharmacologically active ingredients are often almost as effective as formulations with an added drug. Further, the results support the idea that adding menthol to cigarettes might make tobacco smoke more tolerable for beginning smokers, at least in part, by reducing the sensitivity of an important airway defense mechanism.
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