Software being developed by American and Australian scientists will hopefully allow patients simply to cough into their phone, and it will tell them whether they have cold, flu, pneumonia or other respiratory diseases.
Whether a cough is dry or wet, or “productive” or “non-productive” (referring to the presence of mucus on the lungs), can give a doctor information about what is causing that cough, for example whether it is caused by a bacterial or a viral infection.
Health workers can distinguish the different kinds of cough by sound. Now, it is claimed, the new software will do the same, and will save patients a trip to the surgery – or tell them when they are at risk of serious illness.
Suzanne Smith of STAR Analytical Services, the firm behind the research, says: “Why haven’t we been measuring coughs?
“It’s the most common symptom when a patient presents, and we are relying on doctors and nurses with good old technology from the 19th century.”
Coughs typically last around one-quarter of a second, comprising a sharp intake of breath, a silent exhalation and then the complex burst of sounds that makes the cough noise.
Healthy, voluntary coughs tend to be slightly louder than the involuntary coughs of an ill person. And after the initial explosive sound, there are subtleties like vibrating vocal cords and mucus that reveal information about what is happening in the patient’s respiratory system.
The software would compare the patient’s cough to a pre-recorded database of coughs, containing the sounds of all respiratory diseases from people of both sexes and various ages, weights and other variables.
Currently the STAR team has a database of several dozen patients, but they estimate they will need a total of around 1,000 before the software will be reliable.
The software is currently run on a computer, but it is anticipated that it could be rewritten as a smartphone application.
Doctors are optimistic about the new software’s applications. Dr Jaclyn Smith, a doctor of respiratory medicine at the University of Manchester who specialises in cough measurement, told Discovery.com: “If they can find certain parameters to use coughs to diagnose disease that could be fabulous.
“It could really improve disease diagnosis and help improve people’s access to health care.”
STAR has been given a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant of $100,000 (£60,000) to pursue the research, which is expected to be particularly useful in developing countries where pneumonia is a leading cause of death in children.