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

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

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
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.

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