update about the coworker with the chronic cough

Remember the reader whose coworker coughed all day long? Here’s the update:

My particular situation resolved itself, which is lucky for me but not so helpful for other people dealing with the same thing.

In my case, I found out that the coughing woman has asthma and sees a doctor regularly. I think she managed to get better medication or treatment within the last few months because I haven’t heard her cough in a long time. She also is out of the office more now — I think she works from home part of the week. I never did speak to HR about it so I don’t know what would have happened with that.

Of course, now we have a new situation. At this time there are two different women on our floor who scream when they sneeze! Sounds bizarre but it’s true. I might hear this scream-sneeze a few times a week, so it’s not interfering with much. But honestly, when the sneezer closer to me lets loose, it sounds just like someone screaming from fright but with a sneeze tacked on to the end. Neither sneezer covers her mouth or muffles the sneeze as far as I can tell. When it happens we all jump for a moment and then make light of it (not much else TO do). I wish I could make a recording of it. It just goes to show you that in any work place, if it’s not one thing, it’s another.

The real mystery is what would HR or management do if we complained. I still have no idea if there’s a policy surrounding unintentional but disruptive noises.

{ 70 comments… read them below }

  1. Meredith*

    If it isn’t one thing, it’ll be something else, won’t it? Wow. I feel bad for the woman with asthma though! Scream-sneezing, not so much. I mean, you can’t help the *way* you sneeze, really, but you can try to cover your mouth or something! Which you should be doing when you sneeze anyway, I would think!

    1. reeba*

      I disagree. You can help the “way” you sneeze. It is called manners and common sense. You don’t have to scream. We have an office of about 27 people and 3 of them are scream sneezers. It sounds ridiculous. Some people just don’t care that they are rude, they are so self absorbed that they just make whatever noises they choose, and they just do not care if it startles, scares, or interrupts most of the office around them. There are people like this all around us, every day… on trains, buses, they are ill mannered.

  2. KayDay*

    I have a close family member who is a loud sneezer and it drives me nuts! However, I wonder if your office may have a dust or mold problem (my current office is crazy dusty) that is causing all this respiratory issues?!

    1. Michael C.*

      +1. Are you sure your office isn’t the cause of the crazy respiratory issues your colleagues have? I’d keep an eye out.. YOU could be next!

  3. Mel*

    Different Issue – does this website look funny to anyone else right now? It has lost its format, or whatever it is called… is this only my computer?

    1. NDR*

      It doesn’t look funny today (it did yesterday), but I don’t see the most recent posts, unless I click into the December archives.

  4. Anon*

    Both my grandmother and my aunt scream-sneeze. I jump every time, and then give thanks that my mother didn’t inherit this the way my aunt did. I’d have been hospitalized for shell-shock by the time I was 6.

  5. Anonymous*

    I once had hiccups nearly constantly for a few days. (And then for some time just hiccupped a LOT.


    Classic, loud HIC-CUPS!

    I heard about it from my coworkers, but really, what was I to do? It was just one of those things.

  6. Riki*

    I am now convinced that the OP and I work (well, worked – I am no longer there) for the same company.

  7. Laurie*

    Mmm, yeah. I was sympathetic to the asthma thing, but how someone sneezes is really not in their control. I am fortunate to have a sneeze that’s not scary, but I know of people that do, and nothing they do helps. It’s how their body functions. I would suggest the OP dig in deeper in their iPod/headphones. :) It’s what I do.

    1. Anonymous*

      totally don’t want to nitpick….but do you really have NO control over how you sneeze? I’m a quiet sneezer so I have no idea what it’s like to be a screamer (lol) but to me it seems like you usually know it’s coming and could control yourself, no?

      Oh the conversations you probably didn’t think you’d read on a management / employment blog!

      1. Anon*

        Put it this way: do you REALLY have no control over how loud you are when you and your significant other are………?

        Some people are quiet, some people are screamers. Just the way it is.

      2. Anonymous*

        I am one of those “loud sneezers” … unfortunately. Even when I know it is coming, there isn’t much I can do to control it. I’ve tried.

        It is embarrasing to have people ask if you are ok after you sneeze, to hear someone say “bless you” – when they are the next isle over in the store, or to have the Sr. Management Team open the door to a sound-proofed conference room for the sole purpose of saying “bless you”.

        I can almost guarantee, the sneezers hate the way they sneeze as much as you do.

      3. Nishi*

        I am a very loud sneezer. When I sneeze at home, it sounds like a grenade going off. But when I am at work, I am very conscious of this, and I can absolutely minimize this by 1) sneezing into a handy tissue I always have at the ready, and 2) relaxing my throat a little. But I can imagine some people just can’t do this. My coworker is like this–he practically screams, which is very annoying, and which is why I make a concerted effort NOT to be so loud.

    2. Anonymous*

      Your headphones are your friend. I wear mine all the time, even when nothing is playing!

      If you look for it, or even just let it intrude into your world, there will always be someone and something that bothers you. Choose to not let it in. After all, we are each of us annoying to someone, somewhere. Pay the tolerance forward. /preachy preachy paragraph sorry

    3. Anonymous*

      One guy in our office SHOUTS when he sneezes – it is so loud that we all jump. It is as if he is trying to make it as loud as possible. I know that when I sneeze, I can make it louder if I want to.

  8. arm2008*

    Actually… you can change the way you sneeze. Unbeknownst to me, I used to have a loud, shrill sneeze. Someone at work mentioned it to me (brave soul), and I simply modified the way I sneezed. Relaxing my throat and face muscles lowered the pitch and made my sneeze much less of a public nuisance. When visiting home I found out where I got it from – my mom!! It’s actually painful to hear, but she’s not interested in changing it.

    1. A Bug!*

      This is absolutely true. To some extent you can’t really help it if you have a powerful sneeze, but that doesn’t apply when it’s your actual voice making the noise and not the sneeze itself. There’s not really any excuse for shrieking while you sneeze except that you are inconsiderate of those around you.

      So while it may not be a conscious choice, it is certainly a bad habit that a polite person should take steps to eliminate. I bet if these ladies were sitting in the middle of a church sermon they’d be able to muffle their sneezes.

  9. April B*

    As a loud sneezer, I am very embarrassed. I always cover my mouth (and I always try to muffle). I also never sneeze just once – it’s like 7-8 times in a row.

    For people that don’t cover their mouth – ask them to, “would you mind covering your mouth when you cough/sneeze?” If they get upset by that, they have issues.

    1. Joanna Reichert*

      There’s a gal in my office who also sneezes no less than 5 times in a row – sometimes nearing 10. The first sneeze is obviously a sneeze, and the rest sound almost like a cough/sneeze (snough?).

      I’ve never understood people who will not cover their mouth when they sneeze. I don’t care how little of a sneeze you can visibly see – it’s there, and it’s gross – cover your darn mouth!

      If you don’t want to sneeze on your hands, use your elbow. Pull out your collar and sneeze into your shirt. Heck, even a piece of paper is preferable to projectile snot and condensation.

      I wish more companies would take advantage of the cleaning power of nature and use windows that will open, to let a healthy wind in and clear out the nasties that accumulate in man-made structures.

    1. YALM*

      Agreed. I can’t wait to hear what the next complaint is. Oh wait, yes I can.

      Even thinking about going to HR with this seems like a waste of time.

      1. Cruella*

        Oh thank goodness, I am not the only one that thinks this.
        All of these “noises” mentioned are a REFLEX. The offender has no way to control them. They are natural bodily noises.
        What is HR going to do about that?

      1. Anonymous*

        Possibly the OP has problems with noise, however when we all live, commute and work on top of each other, it is not too much to ask that the noisier people be more considerate of others. No-one has to scream-sneeze, and no-one has to click a pen all day either.

  10. Kelly O*

    My husband is a Loud Sneezer.

    We’ve been married five years, together longer than that, and I still jump a mile when he sneezes. I have no advice, other than to just remember that you probably do something that bothers someone else, which is less than helpful when it comes to a solution to your problem.

    For whatever it’s worth, I sit next to a group that includes a Talker, an Arguer, and a Know it All. So I kind of wish it was just someone sneezing or coughing.

  11. CK*

    My husband is also a Loud Sneezer. When he’s in close proximity, his sneeze makes my eardrums hurt.

    There really is nothing that can be done about things like this. The guy that sits in the cubicle behind me had the worst cough a couple of weeks ago (almost sounded like whooping cough) and is also a chronic throat-clearer. I’m very sensitive to these types of noises so I wear my headphones and try to ignore his “biological” noises as much as possible. Who knows, maybe my chronic snacking at my desk annoys him? It’s just the way it is in an open-plan office environment.

    1. Anonymous*

      My husband’s sneezes hurt my eardrums, too! I’m just glad to hear I’m not alone in that. It frustrates both of us…he thinks I’m too sensitive and I wish he’d give warning so I could cover my ears!

  12. ThatHRGirl*

    I agree that it is sounding a *teensy* bit whiney. I mean, we can’t expect a totally silent, peaceful, homogenous workplace 24/7. But I do sympathize – I can’t stand habitual throat-clearers or nose-blowers.

    1. Picky1*

      Would you prefer that the throat-clearer drown in their own mucus or that the nose-blower just let it drip?

      1. Anon*

        When you’ve been listening to them do it every 30 seconds for 9 months?

        I plead the fifth.

  13. Traumatized*

    My mother is a scream-sneezer. You would not believe how loud that is in an enclosed space like a car!

  14. ChristineH*

    My husband used to be a Loud Sneezer, but thinking about it as I’m reading this, his sneezes are a lot quieter. So it is possible to quiet them down to a degree.

    I can see how the OP’s complaints may seem whiny, but I can totally sympathize with her as I too can be quite sensitive to certain noises (I sometimes get irritated at even the smallest of sounds, such as foot-tapping). However, I’ll readily admit that I probably have habits/quirks myself that people get annoyed at. lol. I even once had a performance evaluation that called attention to a couple of these.

  15. Ask a Manager* Post author

    I have never heard of a scream-sneezer! Can someone describe it for me? It is just a sneeze as loud as a scream? Or is it an actual scream that accompanies the sneeze?

    1. Joey*

      It sounds like someone is purposefully trying to sneeze really loudly. The whole sneezing sound is exaggerated.

    2. Kelly O*

      It sounds like they’re exaggerating, it really does. My husband does the “ahhh-CHOOO!!!!” thing – freaked me right out the first time I heard it, because I thought he was just being dramatic. Turns out, nope.

      First time he did it while we were in bed asleep I thought he was going to have to peel me off the ceiling.

    3. Anon*

      The best way I can describe it is that the “Choo” part of “Ah-choo” is screamed at what seems like full volume.

      1. Traumatized*

        My mother’s are the opposite: it’s the “AH!” part that’s so loud. Like a high-pitched, very loud, “Aaaah!!” followed by a regular “choo.”

        They’re very scary, even now that I’m an adult. They’re just so loud and unexpected! (Now I feel like we should start some sort of blog where we record and catalog these!)

    4. Anonymous*

      Think of a women has a real feminine sounding voice (sort of squeaky) and think of them going aaah-CHOOO really loud. The Chooo part sounds like a scream.

      I tried searching youtube for a clip, but I think the panda does a pretty good scream sneeze (plus it’s cute and not disgusting). Watch the mama jump:

        1. lm*

          Hee! Pandas make everything better.

          I’d never heard of the scream-sneezer and now I have some concerns that I could be one of them and not even know. But, I don’t have much of an “ah” and my “choo” is always muffled since I have no warning for my sneezes and always aim for my arm. The method which, according to Mythbusters, has the least amount of spread.

  16. Rebecca*

    I had a roommate who was an anti-climactic sneezer. Huge build up – “AH, AH, AH!” followed by an itty bitty “snit!” Drove me nuts. And my dad always sneezes in threes. Two in a row, pause (sometimes two or three pauses), then three! Our poor old dog would flip over on the first one and then wait, trembling, until the third finally came. Then he’d go back to sleep.

  17. Sandrine*

    Sometimes, I sneeze really loud. Thankfully, for some reason, it either happens when I’m outside or when I’m alone (maybe I’m a shy sneezer haha) .

    With that said, at some point I would sneeze quite loud, too. I learnt the hard way that it’s better to do it quietly, lest you bring attention to yourself after… having… ahem, “things” get out of your nose :P .

    1. Anonymous*

      I sit next to very petite polite woman who be horrified if she knew she blew her nose as loud as she does. The first time she did it I thought it was a joke. Or a 285 lb man. Don’t we all have quirks!

  18. Laura*

    I have a smoker´s cough sitting on each side and a screaming cough sitting behind me. I´m really turning desperate as the screaming cough startles me several times a day (whereas the smokers are just annoying, basically). Can being startled like this several times a day be hazardous to your health? This guy makes no attempts whatsoever to cover his mouth or muffle the sound. I notice that other colleagues are annoyed and startled as well but no one says anything.

      1. Laura*

        I´m sorry I meant to write that he has a screaming sneeze. He sits quite far away so it doesn´t really matter if he covers his mouth for hygienic reasons, but it would at least muffle the sound.

        One of the coughing smokers doesn´t cover his mouth either, but that is indeed bothering since he is sitting near me.

  19. Phideaux*

    Loud sneezers, hackers, coughers and nose blowers are bad, but trust me, nothing is worse than the chronic whistler! I have one who sits right outside my office, and he’s a virtual iPod of whistletunes. He just won’t stop! I have to wonder though if it’s just me. I’ve asked a few others who also work near him, and they don’t seem to have an issue with it. All I can say is thank God for headphones and an office with a door that closes.

    1. Joanna Reichert*

      I would LOVE to hear a whistler!

      I’m back in an office environment after working 4 years in a music store – all I hear is people blather about sports and the constant hum of copiers and keyboards – oh, in addition to a few screaming sneezers (thankfully they’re down the hall, but my how it travels.)

      I keep my sanity by getting outside for fresh air at every opportunity. I tried my iPod, discreetly, but after 2 hours I was told to put it away. : ( They don’t approve of music here. And music keeps me motivated and improve my workflow! Grrr.

    2. khilde*

      Phideaux – I am with you! I have a coworker who whistles quite beautifully but I have to put my headphones on instantly or else I feel like punching something. I don’t react that way for other noises, so I’m puzzled by my own reaction to this. Just because a whistler might conjure up images of a Disney scene with bluebirds carrying banners – it’s annoying as hell.

  20. Cassie*

    I tend to kind of scream-sneeze when I’m at home. In the workplace, though, I tone it down (or try to stop my sneezes). My mom has scream-sneezed since forever.

    All this talk about sneezes reminds me of when Pierce was teaching Troy not to sneeze like a girl… Community reference, anyone?

  21. Anonymous*

    I don’t scream when I sneeze, but I do sound like a small, squeaky, dog’s toy. And I can very rarely sneeze only once. It’s embarrassing, and I’m sure the OP would be having a moan about me. Luckily I don’t sneeze often, so my co-workers just laugh! It’s involuntary though – if I could master a silent, elegant sneeze, I would.

  22. Stevie*

    I can not believe this guy is complaining about people sneezing and coughing. Is he complaining about the germs that they may spread? No! Rather the SOUND of these actions and acting like it is a big deal and should talk to HR about it. Do you not have any idea what an HR department is or does? I will give you a hint, they do NOT get people to stop coughing. It would be one thing if you were complaining about someone who talks loudly or taps on things all day long, but really, the sounds of coughing and sneezing? Grow up and get a grip! People sneeze and cough. People also have asthma, cystic fibrosis, and oh yeah, the common cold at times (all of which make people cough)! If someone sneezing and coughing is the most of your worries, then you are lucky! Most of us have more important things to worry about at work…

    1. Anon*

      Oh, one of those lovely times when I both agree and disagree with someone….
      True, it’s not HR’s job to stop someone from coughing. And I really don’t agree with the OP that a “scream-sneezer” is that big of a deal – after all, people don’t tend to sneeze very frequently. Most of the time, coughing is no big deal, either. A person does it once or twice, or maybe they’re sick and they cough more frequently and it goes away after a few days. But that isn’t what the original article was about. It was about a chronic cougher who coughs every couple of minutes (or more frequently) for weeks or months on end, and I can tell you from experience that is a completely different kettle of fish. You have to constantly ask people to repeat themselves because of the incessant loud noise in the background, and you’re driven crazy by the Chinese-water-torture-like repetition.

      I absolutely have more important things to worry about at work, and I would love to be able to concentrate on worrying about them, except I’ve been interrupted every 30 seconds by a LOUD cougher for the past 9 months! :( I’m about ready to pull my hair out!!!

  23. Sneezed & Coughed On Frequently*

    I have a supervisor that does not cover their sneezes and coughs but actually tries to cast them as far into the air as possible.
    Belches and hacks crap up to!!!
    I have never worked around someone this inconsiderate before and I consider it is disgusting and disrespectful .

  24. unhappyfed*

    Wow. Sounds like we work in the same office. We have a “cougher” and a “screamer/sneezer”. Luckily I no long sit near the sneezer, but am now a LOT closer to the cougher and it is also driving me insane and I have tried the same headphones, etc., with no luck. Seems like if this is a medical issue that somehow management could accommodate everyone by moving the cougher into an office or someplace where they can close a door. It is EXTREMELY disruptive.

  25. cougher!*

    Last week myboss told me I have to find a way to stop coughing because people have complained. Seriously? What am I supposed to do? It’s not like body odor or bad breath or whistling that I can fix!

    I have mild asthma which can cause a tickling sensation… sometimes it’s a minor cough here and there and sometimes it can be a long jag of it here and there….not fun for me, believe me. So embarrassing on the train, in line at stores (when coming in from icy cold especially.) etc. I want to make a sign that says “stop giving me dirty looks–it’s only asthma”. I always cover my mouth, suck on soothing cough drops, etc.

    I know it had been more annoying in the last couple of weeks because I’ve had a difficult-to-get-over cold (as have a few other people here!), but I still think she had a hell of a nerve. I am now offended, embarrassed, self-conscious, suspicious of everyone— all rolled into one.

    I have been here 3 years with dedicated and exemplary service (my superiors are vocal about that!), but I am now looking for another job and I WILL let them know that this is the reason why.

    1. Anon*

      And I’m now looking for another job because I can’t concentrate on my work or hear people on the phone due to a nearby chronic cougher. It goes both ways; neither of us are in a good situation.
      (To be fair, her cough seems more serious than yours, though. It’s like every 30 seconds, sometimes even more frequently than that, every day, and been going on for about 9 months at this point… driving me absolutely mad and stressing me out to the point that it’s starting to affect my own health. Hence the job search.)

  26. rw*

    whether coughing or sneezing, keep tissues on your desk and cover your mouth.. covering your mouth with a tissue (and not a hand) will keep mucus, phlegm and saliva from flying 10 to 20 feet… and a huge side bonus, muffles most of the noise.. i say give these scream sneezers and coughers a box of tissue and ask them to cover their mouths.. common courtesy.

    1. Anon*

      Be careful with that.
      I have a chronic cougher at work and I used to give her a bag of herbal tea (nice imported stuff, too) whenever her cough started to annoy me. About a week ago, I had a disagreement with one of her department mates about the level of (non-coughing-related) noise SHE makes (whistling, having constant really loud private conversations, etc.), and in desperation to defend herself, she used that against me! Said I was “harassing” the cougher, and I ended up getting written up.

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