American and Canadian scientists are designing software that will diagnose ailments by coughing into the phone. The software will be able to distinguish between a cold, flu, pneumonia, and other respiratory diseases, and let patients know whether or not they need to visit the doctor.
Whether it is dry (non-productive) or wet (productive and indicates mucous in the lungs), the sound of a cough can indicate whether it is caused by a viral or bacterial infection.
"Why haven't we been measuring coughs?" Suzanne Smith of STAR Analytical Services, the company developing the software, asked in a statement.
"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."
A typical cough lasts about one-quarter of a second, and the particular sound of a cough gives a doctor hints about its cause. But the scientists developing the new software think that much more information could be hidden in sounds that could be used for diagnosis by a computer program. They hope to program coughs for all respiratory diseases that are adjusted to a person’s age, weight, and sex in addition to other factors that influence coughs.
Although the current software runs on a computer, the researchers believe it can be rewritten as an application for smartphones.
Dr. Jaclyn Smith, a doctor of respiratory medicine at the University of Manchester, has been studying coughs for years. “There is no question that there is a lot of variability in the coughs of people," Smith said.
"If they can find certain parameters to use coughs to diagnose disease, that could be fabulous," she told Discovery.com. "It could really improve disease diagnosis and help improve people's access to health care."
Coughing into a phone, however, could add even more bacteria to the phone itself. A British study found the average cell phone harbored 14 times more bacteria than the flush handle in a men's toilet. In the future, coughers could be advised to follow up their diagnostic cough by cleaning their cell phone with an anti-bacterial wipe.