No, you can’t hear the difference between sick and healthy coughs

Humans can’t seem to pick up on subtle variations in the sounds

man wearing a mask and coughing

A man outdoors coughs into a face mask. Humans can’t distinguish the cough of a healthy person from that of a sick person by sound alone, new research suggests.

VioletaStoimenova/E+/Getty Images Plus

An aisle over in the grocery store, someone lets out a nasty cough, and you shudder. “That person sounds really sick,” you think as you head in the opposite direction.

A new study may prompt you to think again. Humans can’t hear a difference between the cough of someone with an infection and someone with a mere tickle in the throat, researchers report June 10 in Proceedings of the Royal Society B

People can fight infections off with the immune system, but that can take a lot of energy and doesn’t always work, says Nick Michalak, a social psychologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “Many organisms, including humans, have developed prophylactic behaviors to prevent pathogens from [causing infection] in the first place,” he says, like being grossed out by possibly infectious material like feces or snot.

While there’s evidence that people can somewhat accurately suss out another’s infection by sight and smell, Michalak says sound was relatively unexplored.

He and his colleagues played short audio clips of coughing from apparently sick and healthy people collated from YouTube for over 200 volunteers, asking whether each cough was from someone who was ill or not. Despite expressing confidence in their abilities, participants did no better than a coin flip in distinguishing between the two types of coughs.

Michalak says that previous audiological research has revealed differences between sick and healthy coughs, but the human ear may not be able to distinguish them. Or perhaps people need to integrate how a person sounds with other observations, such as how someone looks, to make an accurate assessment. 

While many are on high alert for avoiding infection right now amid the COVID-19 pandemic (SN: 5/14/20), Michalak says that this study should give people pause before jumping to conclusions based on the tenor of someone’s cough alone.

Jonathan Lambert is a former staff writer for biological sciences, covering everything from the origin of species to microbial ecology. He has a master’s degree in evolutionary biology from Cornell University.

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