The grossest of the gross
February 12, 2021 8:04 AM   Subscribe

My neighbor down the hall is coughing his brains out all day every day. Should I be concerned for him and for me?

I live in a house in brooklyn with two apartments upstairs and two apartments downstairs. I moved in about a month ago and thanks to Covid, everyone stays cooped up in our apartments 99% of the time.

Last week, a guy moved into the other apartment on my floor (the 2nd floor). I have never seen him but I hear him and oh my god, he is constantly hacking his brains out. Every ten minutes or so he does this HHHHCCCCHHHH thing in his throat like he’s, I’m so sorry, hacking up a wad of phlegm the size of a bowling ball, gargling with it, and then ptoooo-ing it into the sink. It is so loud and so gross, I go around my apartment with headphones on all day so I don’t hear it.

Last night he was hacking and retching so hard and long, I was literally about to knock on his door and ask if he was ok when two seconds later, I heard him on the phone, totally normal voice, being like “hey man how’s it going, blah blah blah” as if he was 100% fine. He’s a young, cheerful sounding guy who’s always laughing and talking on the phone with his buddies. He sounds totally fine and normal and healthy except every five minutes or so, I think an alien bursts out of his chest.

Would it be totally out of line if I knocked on his door and was like “Hi I live across the hall, just wanted to say welcome to the building and also I hear you coughing a lot, whats up?” My friend said maybe he’s a smoker and this is just… what smokers sound like? I cannot stress how loud and violent and insane this coughing/hacking is. Does he have some kind of extreme Covid? Except two days ago he had some friends over and they were talking up a storm and having a grand old time. I would THINK he wouldn’t have friends over if he was crazy sick. But who knows. Right now he is actually SINGING in his apt, and every now and then, retching into the sink. WTF.

I guess my questions are A. should I be concerned for myself, living right next to someone who sounds extremely sick and B. should I reach out and see if he’s ok or is that WAY out of line? I mean its absolutely none of my business but I literally spend every second of my day ten feet away from this guy.
posted by silverstatue to Health & Fitness (25 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Ugh. I'm no expert, but I thought Covid produced a dry cough, so maybe the phlegm is actually a good sign?
posted by pinochiette at 8:08 AM on February 12, 2021 [1 favorite]

It’s none of your business. What use is confronting him about it? It’s not like you can help him with this issue. Don’t bother him.
posted by cakelite at 8:09 AM on February 12, 2021 [55 favorites]

Just one point of anecdata, my husband has nasal polyps which drain into his throat and cause him to cough - a LOT - sometimes as you describe. He’s not sick, but it’s hard to be around. He also has no sense of smell because they press on his scent bulb.
posted by dbmcd at 8:33 AM on February 12, 2021 [3 favorites]

He has a lot of people in his life who could help him if he needed help so you don't need to knock on his door for that reason. Of course, it's very understandable to this internet stranger if the subtitle to "Are you ok?" is "You know I can hear you, right?"
posted by nantucket at 8:37 AM on February 12, 2021 [1 favorite]

I've just got over a bout of bronchitis and I get cold induced asthma which has me hacking and coughing to the point of vomiting if I forget my puffer and between the two I'd have sounded just like your guy for the past 6 weeks. I had a bad case of covid last year and it is a dryer more hacking less productive cough. If it's because he smokes the coughing will be worse in the morning, with the worst just after he wakes up.

If you are actually concerned about the the guy, I'd have loved some hot and sour soup to appear at any point in the past few weeks. " I heard you coughing I bought you some soup" could lay the ground work to you finding out what is going on if you absolutely have to know and let him know you can hear him in a way that appears more neighbourly than creepy. Anyway just an idea.
posted by wwax at 8:38 AM on February 12, 2021 [3 favorites]

It could be a million things. Don't jump to conclusions. He could just be a heavy smoker of tobacco or pot. Totally not your business, but I also don't think it would be terribly out of line to leave a note introducing yourself and offering help if he needs it.

And also I would probably mention that I can hear him hawking loogies all day and it forces me to wear headphones, ymmv.
posted by SaltySalticid at 8:52 AM on February 12, 2021

Gross. I think you should knock on his door so that he knows just how freaking thin your walls are and that you can hear him cough, talk on the phone, talk with his friends, etc.. Bring cookies.
posted by amanda at 9:01 AM on February 12, 2021

If the sound of his coughing is interfering with your life (and it sounds like it is), I would absolutely try to do something about it, though it's not clear that anything will help here. I'd probably write him a very polite note asking if he needs assistance, and also hint that his hacking is audible in your apartment, is loud, and is disruptive.
posted by alex1965 at 9:03 AM on February 12, 2021 [1 favorite]

Used to live next to an old dude that chainsmoked unfiltered cigs. He'd sit on his back porch and cough all day long. I mean non stop. It was quite annoying. So yeah, maybe a smoker?
posted by Splunge at 9:28 AM on February 12, 2021

My vote is, "it's absolutely none of your business."
posted by eotvos at 9:35 AM on February 12, 2021 [4 favorites]

The reasons for his coughing are none of your business and you don't need to diagnose him or offer any home remedies.

The disruptive noise is your business and you should address things from that point of view with both your neighbor and your landlord. Your new neighbor could do a few things to insulate your party wall(s) a bit more which might cut down on the noise like more sound absorbing rugs or wall hangings, or putting bookshelves along the party wall. Your landlord could consider adding some soundproofing to the party walls and shared ceilings. It's not that expensive (I did it in my NYC co-op a long time ago and the subsequent peace and quiet was worth every penny).
posted by brookeb at 9:43 AM on February 12, 2021 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Definitely don't jump to conclusions about the cause of the coughing. There's no way for you to know unless he tells you and the cause isn't any of your business. Now as to the sound itself, I really sympathize with you. I have misophonia and coughing is my "nails on a chalkboard." If it's really as bad as you say I think I'd try to move to a different appartment in your building, if one became available. I wouldn't t give a reason why to the landlord. In my experience most people don't understand how bad misophonia can be, how truly life altering in a terrible way, and they just dismiss you as a big complainer.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 9:47 AM on February 12, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: If I had not just moved a month ago, I would leave tomorrow. It is truly... Ive never heard anything like this before and I've lived in NYC apartments for the past 17 years.

I will look into some kind of soundproofing for the common wall. I am running white noise machines 24/7. I'm taking all my work calls in the bathroom with the door closed and the fan going :(
posted by silverstatue at 9:52 AM on February 12, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I used to take a commuter train to work and I often ended up on the same car as a woman with an absolutely horrifying cough. Like, the first time you heard it you were like, "Holy shit, why isn't someone giving her medical attention right this second? Why is everyone on the train ignoring this woman's obvious, serious distress?" But like your neighbor, she would immediately resume her business once the cough passed. I always assumed the cough was caused by some kind of serious chronic medical condition (maybe she was a smoker but she didn't smell like it), and if so I hope she was getting appropriate treatment and support! But, like, what can you do? She coughed. Everybody else listened to her coughing. I'm sure a lot of people asked her if she was OK.

Basically I'm just not sure how talking to this guy about the cough would help? Either it's a short-term thing (possibly contagious) that will pass, or it's a long-term issue (unlikely to be contagious) that you'll have to deal with as long as the two of you share walls. Maybe he's a smoker. Maybe he has cystic fibrosis. Maybe he has a wicked case of bronchitis. I'm not sure how you can help him with any of that as a complete stranger.
posted by mskyle at 9:56 AM on February 12, 2021 [2 favorites]

Team none of your business here.
posted by spitbull at 11:47 AM on February 12, 2021

Not to pile on, but though I feel your pain, I think it will not be appropriate or productive to talk to the person (the new person who moved in directly below us practices his electric guitar, and sometimes it is the same few notes for hours, sigh; he is doing it now). Point of information, when I had a cough like that it was Whooping Cough (the vaccine wears off eventually) it was miserable, and there was not a lot I could do about it. The coughing lingered long after I was no longer contagious, and there was not too much I could do about it. Cold weather exacerbated it.
posted by gudrun at 12:28 PM on February 12, 2021

I agree that it's none of your business, but at the same time I don't think there's anything wrong with going across the hall (at a distance!) just to say hi and introduce yourself given that he just moved in. During that you can mention, FYI, that the walls are thin. Don't point out that you hear him coughing a lot, but I think it's okay to start this line of communication between the two of you, especially if he seems friendly. He might mention the cough and he might not. Either way, if you're going to be neighbours, it's a good thing to be aware of and be able to occasionally wander across and say "hey, can you turn things down" once in a while (and goes both ways, maybe you're doing things that he can hear as well!).

I've lived in a few places with really thin walls like this and it makes things soooo much easier if you can actually talk to your neighbours about it. Plus IMO it's just a good idea to get to know your neighbours in general.
posted by fight or flight at 12:35 PM on February 12, 2021 [2 favorites]

I can’t think of a polite way to ask until you’ve already met him. Could you plan a very quick outdoor (masked) meeting? Maybe taking out the trash or after leaving? Then after you meet him you could try a second “chance encounter” and try asking him, “oh my, have you been really sick? I’ve heard your cough and it sounds so painful! Are you sure it’s not Covid and can I help” This is best delivered if you run into him outside - I think knocking on his door just to ask is passive aggressive. (I realize this suggestion requires Jessica Fletcher level investigative skills). Then if he says nah, it’s my normal cough, you have an opening to talk about crappy apartment walls? And THEN you have an opening to talk about how disruptive these terrible walls are & if he’s cool, maybe you have some kind of treaty where he ... I don’t know... coughs in another room? I’m wondering if he has allergies that cause a constant cough and if that’s the case, he clears his throat and coughs almost reflexively. It’s a habit. If he knows someone can hear him, perhaps he would monitor it. I mean, I clear my throat a lot differently when I’m alone then if I’m like in front of a crowded auditorium, you know? So maybe he’s not thinking it’s that loud. But he’s also someone who had friends over during Covid, so I’m thinking he’s not mr. thoughtful. Hopefully this is temporary and you’ll both be able to be out of the apartment more eventually.
posted by areaperson at 1:32 PM on February 12, 2021 [2 favorites]

Way out of line, as you guess. Especially as your concern is clearly your comfort, not his health.

I’m totally sympathetic—I could be you. My neighbor turned out to have lung cancer, which I only found out when he died. I’m so grateful I never worked myself into enough of a lather to complain or—yikes—put him on the spot because why tf would he have to answer to a stranger? I cringe at myself. Again, my sympathy is with you but you can’t let your annoyance drive the bus here.

I’m not saying it’s cancer but it could be anything from a nervous tic to a weed habit to a bad cold to a psych problem to covid to emphysema to cancer and I recommend not speculating about it. If you speculate about it, you only feed your own annoyance. And you’re kind of crossing a boundary even thinking this much about it (speaking from experience) because you’re getting too deep into judging his personal life and you’re not the arbiter of like what’s a valid or reasonable cough, you know?

If it’s interfering with your life you might ask the landlord if there’s anything to be done with the space itself. Example: I used to shower and clean the tub too frequently due to ocd; there was a leak and instead of asking the landlord to fix the leak, my neighbors confronted me about bathing twice a day. That was humiliating for me, and ineffective for them.

Retaliation is not even something you should indulge as a fantasy. Coughing is involuntary; he’s not blasting music, he’s living in whatever condition he’s in.
posted by kapers at 1:50 PM on February 12, 2021 [7 favorites]

I think it's rude to subject an apartment building to an extremely loud, disruptive health condition

I moved into an apartment building with only four tenants. I was downstairs from a cougher who woke me up virtually every night. I found out later, from another tenant, that the guy had a terminal illness. So I am on team don't say anything but do try to take care of yourself. I am so so sorry you are in this situation.
posted by Bella Donna at 3:03 PM on February 12, 2021 [3 favorites]

oh mannnn I really feel for you. At a previous job for 5 whole years, my cubicle was located next to the office of somebody who had a heart wrenchingly violent chronic cough. Super loud whooping, and just so, so frequent. I'll probably remember what it sounds like for the rest of my life. It drove me batty despite me really feeling for him (it must have been so painful for him).

The only thing that made it better was to gamify it. I kept a (discreet) running tally on my desk, and whenever I heard a coughing fit, added a tally, and when I reached 50 I treated myself to a fun cupcake treat. Now that I'm typing it out, it's rather creepy and immature, but it was really the only thing that made the situation better for me.
posted by blueberrypuffin at 8:04 PM on February 12, 2021 [5 favorites]

Allergies can also cause this kind of cough. Where I used to work I sometimes had to leave the room and go choke and hack in the bathroom it was so disruptive. It stopped after the carpet was replaced.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 11:10 PM on February 12, 2021 [1 favorite]

For what it's worth, my impression is that SARS-CoV-1 (the 2003 one) was associated with residential transmission, but only in Hong Kong, which has apartments so small they are called "coffins".
posted by wnissen at 11:56 AM on February 13, 2021

Response by poster: I can't believe yesterday I posted about being upset because of this guy coughing. Since then, he's had back to back all night rager parties with countless people piling into the apt and making so much noise, my walls were shaking. His cough is the least of my problems. I have to move.
posted by silverstatue at 7:23 PM on February 13, 2021 [5 favorites]

Oof, that update. I am so sorry OP, sound like a miserable situation.

I don’t have any long term advice, but until you figure out your course of action I would recommend you cover your entire apartment in a heavy blanket of white noise. Headphones are nice but eventually they’ll come off and you’ll hear those stressful sounds. Not good.

It is not a cure-all, but heavy white noise has really helped me sleep and mask all the sounds you hear from others in a shared dwelling. The reason I said “blanket” of white noise is because I don’t think 1 device will cut it, you’ll want several (maybe a fan, a computer/tablet connected to the stereo, and a cheap standalone white noise machine.) Since you cannot immediately escape this situation and wearing earplugs and headphones 24/7 is not feasible, I strongly recommend you try to cover up as many outside sounds as you can with this. Best of luck.
posted by andruwjones26 at 1:53 AM on February 14, 2021 [1 favorite]

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