Don’t Judge an Illness by Its Cough

Many people are paranoid about coughs at the moment. People hear a cough and quickly look around to see who it was — and if they are covering their mouth appropriately. Is it a cold? Allergies? Just a throat being cleared? We listen to the cough, trying to determine its cause, but a new study shows that it is useless because the sound of a cough alone won’t tell you the reason.

Researchers played soundbites of coughing from sick and healthy people from YouTube for more than 200 volunteers. They asked the participants to say if the coughing person was healthy or ill. Even though the volunteers were confident in their answers, they were only right four out of every ten times.They may have been more accurate if they tossed a coin.

We find no evidence that perceivers can reliably detect pathogen threats from cough and sneeze sounds, even though they are reasonably certain they can,” said Nicholas Michalak, the lead author and a Univ. of Michigan psychology graduate student. Even when they were told ahead of time how many of the sounds came from ill people, they still weren’t right in guessing which were the unwell coughs.

The “grosser” a cough sounds, the more likely people were to think someone is ill. But a very wet cough can just be a smoker’s cough. Wet coughs sound more dangerous, but the cough associated with COVID-19 is dry. And dry coughs aren’t all the same either.

But, people felt confident in their answers. “Despite this poor overall accuracy, perceivers consistently reported reasonable certainty in their judgments,” said Mr. Michalak. Doctors can tell different coughs apart when evaluating someone in front of them and their other symptoms. ( But people, in general, can’t.

While you can see if someone is sweating, pale, red-faced or going green and know that they are unwell in some way. You cannot tell from the sound of a cough if they are ill. Being judgmental toward someone because they are out in public with a cough will get you nowhere. Right now, while many of us are afraid of coming into contact with COVID-19, it’s best to wear a mask and steer clear of other people. Trying to determine if they are ill from the sound of their cough won’t work. All that does is make you fractious and worried when there is nothing you can do.
June 19, 2020

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