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Cough into your cell phone, not your sleeve

Software being developed by Star Analytical Services may soon enable cell phone users to record their coughs and diagnose a cold, flu, or something else.

Software may soon enable cell phone users to record their coughs and diagnose a cold, flu, etc.
Mac Users Guide/Flickr

We've already written this week about using cell phone imaging to analyze a blood sample and diagnose disease. Because viruses such as influenza are smaller than light waves, diagnosing something like H1N1 is not yet possible.

Thankfully, the sounds of our coughs might be all we need to diagnose whether we have a cough, flu, or respiratory disease. It all boils down to the quality of a cough, such as whether it is dry or wet (aka "productive" or "unproductive"), where the presence or absence of mucus on the lungs helps to determine the cause of the cough.

Trained health workers are already able to distinguish cough types by sound. Thanks to software currently being developed by Star Analytical Services, people may soon be able to install an app to have this audio know-how at their fingertips.

"We are relying on doctors and nurses with good old technology from the 19th century," Suzanne Smith of Star tells Discovery News. "Why haven't we been measuring coughs?"

The software would work much like a fingerprint check, comparing one recording to a database of pre-recorded coughs that contain the sounds of all known respiratory diseases from people of both genders, and various ages and weights. The current database is only several-dozen large; the Star scientists anticipate needing about 1,000 recordings for the software to be truly effective.

If it's true that each respiratory illness carries distinct audio cues, comparing one's cough to a database could be a great way to get an idea of whether you've got a cold, flu, or some other illness. But I'm skeptical that a sound check can give a definitive diagnosis.

For one, certain coughs could contain a variety of underlying issues from preexisting conditions (a heavy smoker, an asthmatic, someone who has a cough and then gets the flu). And second, as far as I know, I've never had a doctor or nurse definitively diagnose an illness through the sound of my cough alone.

Still, there are certainly circumstances under which I'd prefer coughing into my cell phone to get an educated guess over trekking to the doctor's and paying to be told I simply need to rest.