The sound of a COVID-19 cough

Photo credit: GabboT licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Throughout history, physicians have used sounds to diagnose respiratory illness. Sometimes one doesn’t need a stethoscope. The barking cough of croup in a child, the ominous upper airway wheeze of epiglottitis, and the wheezes of someone with an asthma attack, can all be heard when walking into the patient’s room.

The stethoscope helps, though. Rene Laennec invented the stethoscope in 1816.

We listen for the wheeze of asthma, the bronchial breath sounds of pneumonia, the rales of congestive heart failure, or the diminished or absent breath sounds of pneumothorax.

I once even diagnosed lung cancer in a smoker when I heard the telltale “wheeze that doesn’t clear with a cough.” I had read about this in medical school, but had never heard it in practice until I did. I ordered a chest x-ray which confirmed the diagnosis and the patient was able to have curative surgery.

COVID-19 patients often have a dry cough. Until the U.S. develops sufficient testing capability to test every person needing a COVID test, perhaps sounds can help.

This NPR report discusses possibly using artificial intelligence to analyze the sounds of COVID coughs to develop a diagnostic test. This would also be useful in resource-poor environments around the world. I hope the efforts described are successful.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

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