Closeup portrait of Asian people with a lot of coughs and chest pain suffering with cough | Feature | How to Describe a Cough?

Are you unable to describe your cough/chronic cough?

Let us make it easier for you.

To your surprise, an app can track your cough in the form of audio files, which can help your doctor diagnose the issue. If you’ve had to describe a cough to your doctor, you know how hard it can be. Read on to learn how to describe a cough in a way that doctors can most effectively use to make a diagnosis.

How to Describe My Cough in Medical Terminology

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said: “The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for.”

If this is true, it puts many of us at a significant disadvantage when discussing symptoms with our doctors. After all, doctors go to school for many years longer than the rest of us to learn diagnostic techniques, treatments, and very complicated medical language.

For example: when your doctor asks you to describe your cough, she attempts to gather as much objective data as possible from your subjective report. You may tell her that every time you cough, it feels like “something is coming up my throat.” 

Through further questioning and translating this in her head, she should conclude that your cough is productive. Since productive coughs go hand in hand with specific ailments, she might order further tests and ask more questions to reach a more definitive diagnosis. From there, she can prescribe the most effective treatments for your condition.

However, it all comes back to language. If you can’t think of the right word to describe your cough and your doctor goes down the wrong diagnostic path, you may end up with a misdiagnosis.

Furthermore, due to the novel coronavirus, we are hyper-aware of coughs as spreaders of disease. So you might need to describe symptoms manifested by your family members, coworkers, and friends, in addition to your own. This information will help our doctors achieve the most precise picture of our issues and reasons for seeing them.

For these reasons, we have put together a guide for describing a cough most accurately.

You may want to read this research article: What Is Chronic Cough? Terminology.

What is the purpose of describing my cough?

The main reason for describing a cough is to help your doctor identify the class. In other words, different forms of coughs occur due to various causes. Hence, it becomes easier for the doctor to define a proper treatment.

Classifying Coughs

To start, we need to review the essential terminology doctors use to classify coughs. Most doctors will attempt to categorize a cough into one of the following two types in terms of whether or not your cough produces anything:

  • Dry – This is the type of cough that only expels essentially dry air.
  • Wet or Productive – The kind of cough that produces mucus or phlegm. Your chest may feel tight or rattle when you breathe.

Additionally, your doctor will want to determine how long your cough has lasted. This timeframe is fundamental for deciding whether it is considered “acute” or “chronic.”

  • Acute – Any cough that lasts less than a chronic cough.
  • Chronic – A cough that lasts more than four weeks in children and eight weeks in adults.

Simply identifying how long a cough has lasted and whether it is productive or not allows doctors to narrow diagnostic work down to a handful of likely diseases.

Diagnosis of Disease Based on Cough

Coughing can occur due to respiratory infections, bacterial infections, and respiratory infections. It would be best if you did not think about occasional cough because it can be a general mechanism of your body. Listing different types of cough:

Once your doctor has classified your cough, she must develop a diagnosis. This step is where further testing and descriptions of your cough become even more critical. Patients and doctors alike can use the following descriptions of certain cough-related diseases.

Whooping Cough

Words such as “harsh” or “hacking cough” with a “whooping” sound when inhaling can describe a disease known as Whooping Cough (AKA Pertussis). The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention outlines the sound of Pertussis as follows:

“Pertussis can cause violent and rapid coughing, repeatedly until the air is gone from your lungs. When there is no more air in the lungs, you inhale with a loud ‘whooping’ sound. This extreme coughing can cause you to throw up and be very tired.”


A dry, irritating cough that becomes wet as the illness progresses, along with discolored mucus, are indicators of pneumonia. If you suffer from pneumonia, try observing these recommended lifestyle changes.


Asthma can be associated with excessive mucus production and a panicked, breathless feeling. This condition can occur after heavy physical effort, in response to contact with an allergen, or due to many other causes.

Read can my chronic cough be a sign of asthma?


A persistent (chronic) cough from inflamed lungs and restricted airways may be a symptom of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). The patient may describe COPD as a hacking, wet cough with a lot of mucus. It often goes hand-in-hand with wheezing, shortness of breath, and a tight chest.

Post-Nasal Drip

Post-nasal drip is a condition in which mucus drips at the back of the throat. A sporadic, dry (or wet) cough that becomes worse in the evening may be a symptom of post-nasal drip.


Coughing during lung cancer lies in the chronic cough category. The prolonged cough is because cancerous cells during any lung cancer block the respiratory airway.

What is the sound of a cough?

Most often, the sounds of cough depend on the type of cough. Coughing can either be productive or dry

This research paper elaborates on the description of cough sounds by healthcare professionals. According to this study, there can be three categories of cough sounds.

  • Cough with wheeze sounds: (chest) wheezing
  • Wet cough (along with mucus) sounds: moist, loose, rattling, and productive
  • Dry cough (without mucus) sounds: barking, hoarseness, dry

Is It Enough to Just Describe a Cough?

While we can identify many illnesses by accurately describing a cough, it’s not a fool-proof diagnostic method. Beyond just pulling the essential information from patient cough descriptions, physicians also need to develop an ear for acoustic analysis. But a study from 2006 shows that most physicians’ skills could use some fine-tuning in this area.

According to this study, identifying clinical diagnoses from coughs was poor at 34.0%. The researchers added, “Cluster analysis showed coughs with the same acoustics properties rather than the same diagnoses attracted the same descriptions.” In other words, the study participants used the way a cough sounds rather than the properties of the cough to diagnose illness.

The study concluded that healthcare professionals recognized some essential qualities of a cough. However, they rarely made an accurate diagnosis solely based on listening to cough.

Luckily, a lot has changed since the article was published nearly 15 years ago. Physicians now have more tools to help them accurately identify cough sounds.

How to describe a cough - hyfe app

How would you describe coughing without demonstrating it?

AI and machine learning have given us some handy information in recent years. This technological progress is especially true when identifying and tracking coughs.

Data scientist Joe Brew makes a thought-provoking comment in his article on what a cough looks like. He writes, “Converting the sound of a cough to a visual representation allows for the use of advanced image recognition techniques. 

This approach has applications in differentiating between a cough and background noise and potentially using each cough’s acoustic signature to understand better the health of the person who coughs. By teaching AI how to distinguish between a cough and ambient noise, we can track cough frequency over time and space.”

He adds that humans describe a cough in simplified terms like ‘wet’ or ‘dry.’ Machines, on the other hand, can generate categories far beyond our abilities. Case in point, a computer can detect features of coughs that most human ears cannot recognize. Perhaps most importantly, language doesn’t limit artificial intelligence from gathering clinical data.

You can also learn more about the quality and quantity of your coughing episodes or time using AI. 

Here are some distinct images of cough sounds to show how different they may look:


Our words can’t always accurately describe a cough. Human language is insufficient when describing a cough’s frequency, tone, volume, duration, and other invisible attributes. A machine can consolidate this information into usable data, bypassing the difficulties of language barriers and limitations. 

Digital technology and AI may lead us to a more connected, healthier world in the future. A world in which a doctor, who speaks an entirely different language than a patient, can make an accurate diagnosis using the best available artificial intelligence. But no matter what the future holds, it is always vital that we effectively use language to describe a cough. In the end, language may not be perfect, but it is one of the most important tools we have.

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