updated 11/9/2009 12:51:47 PM ET 2009-11-09T17:51:47

Coughing into your cell phone could soon save you a trip to the doctor's office.

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New research by American and Australian scientists aims to diagnose cold, flu, pneumonia or other respiratory diseases by analyzing coughs with software.

The research could save patients across the world a trip to the doctor's office. Instead, they could simply cough into their cell phone and receive a diagnosis a few seconds later.

"Why haven't we been measuring coughs?" asked Suzanne Smith of STAR Analytical Services, a Massachusetts company developing cough-analyzing software for disease diagnosis. The company was recently awarded a Gates Foundation grant to develop the software for developing countries.

"Its the most common symptom when a patient presents, and we are relying on doctors and nurses with good old technology from the 19th century."

The average cough only last a quarter of a second, but the short burst of sound and air created by the explosive release of air, microbes and foreign particles from the lungs contains subtle hints about the health of the body.

Doctors generally classify coughs as wet or dry, with a subcategory of productive or nonproductive, a reference to the presence or production of mucous in the lungs.

Most health care professionals can distinguish between the two kinds, and each kind gives subtle hints about whether a person has a bacterial or viral infection.

The Bedford, Massachusetts scientists think there is much more information hidden in coughs though, and are trying to tease out that information by analyzing specific sounds inside coughs.

A cough has a specific structure. First comes the inhalation, a sharp intake of air into the lungs. Next comes an initial but silent expulsion of air that last about 50 milliseconds.

The final 100 to 150 milliseconds of the cough contains the distinctive sounds that could help doctors and nurses remotely diagnose a cough as the common cold or more serious pneumonia.

Even with a limited amount of data, scientists can distinguish between a healthy, voluntary cough and the involuntary cough of a sick person. Healthy people have slightly louder coughs, about 2 percent louder than a sick person.

After the initial burst of sound, a cough becomes increasingly complex. The vocal cords vibrate. Mucus in the lungs, throat and nose absorb certain wavelengths while emitting their own noises. Most of this mucousal music emerges from the mouth, but some of it also comes from head, neck and chest.

If a doctor already has a disease diagnosis, the sound of a cough could contain clues about how much fluid has built up in a patient's lungs.

Before a definitive diagnose of cold or flu over the phone can be achieved, the scientists need more data. So far the scientists have gathered cough records from several dozen sick patients from a local hospital's emergency department.

To tease out all the relationships between certain noises and specific diseases they estimate they will need about 1,000 cough samples.

With that data the scientists eventually want to develop sound profiles of all respiratory diseases, adjusted for a person's age, weight, sex and other factors that influence coughs.

Any time a person coughs, the sound can be run through the computer, compared to all known cough profiles, and a diagnosis can be confirmed in a few seconds. The software could likely even be installed on cell phones, as a so-called iCough application.

Other scientists are also studying coughs. Udantha Abeyratne of the University of Queensland in Australia also received a Gates grant to develop software that can diagnose disease based on coughs recorded with cell phones or MP3 players. Jaclyn Smith, a doctor at the University of Manchester in the UK has studied coughing for years.

Smith is very interested in the new research but expects that teasing out the specific sounds will be difficult.

"There is no question that there is a lot of variability in the coughs of people," said Smith. "But 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," said Smith.

© 2012 Discovery Channel


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