The doctor asks: “Do you have a cough?”
“Yes”, you say. “Since when?” she asks. You go through your memories and try to recall when you started coughing. Tuesday? Wednesday? Sure, “Wednesday”, you say. You don’t really know. “And how much would you say you’ve been coughing?” You pause. How much? Per hour? Per 24 hours? Am I usually coughing at night? “A lot”, you say. The doctor scribbles something in her pad and proceeds to take your blood pressure, pulse, and weight.
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It’s one of the first questions your doctor asks. She may also ask about the frequency and intensity or if it happens at night.
Despite facing these questions throughout our lives, it’s often hard to answer.
In part, it’s because we can’t quantify it. Medicine involves a lot of precision, and coughing isn’t something you can measure like blood pressure.
Additionally, we don’t always notice we are coughing, and it may happen up to 20 times a day without you noticing.
Measuring a cough takes rigorous observation over time, and time is something we don’t always have. As a result, coughing sometimes gets ignored in favor of more quantifiable symptoms.
What Is a Normal Cough?
We associate coughing with illness, but that’s not necessarily the reason for a it. As mentioned earlier, people manifest coughing quite frequently without realizing it.
This explosive expulsion is a spontaneous reflex, and happens normally as your body’s way to clear the throat or get rid of an irritant. Some common irritants like dust and pollen may cause some coughing. Furthermore, occasional coughing keeps mucus mobile, which in turn protects you from germs.
Additionally, a normal cough depends on a personal baseline. For example, to someone with seasonal allergies, it usually lasts a couple of days or even weeks. However, another person coughing for the same length of time, and with the same intensity may need medical attention. In other words, it differs from one person to the next.
RELATED: Cough Frequency: What do we know?
When it comes to health, we measure so much with precision.
While most of us experience this explosive respiratory expulsion from time to time, other coughs could indicate a medical condition.
Dry coughs feel like a tickle in the back of your throat and may trigger hacking coughs, but doesn’t bring up mucus.
Allergies or laryngitis can cause a dry cough, but it’s more often a symptom of an upper respiratory infection. Additionally, it may linger for weeks after an infection has passed.
When accompanied by fever and shortness of breath, dry coughing is a tell-tale sign of COVID-19 as well.
Wet coughs typically bring up mucus. For this reason, it’s sometimes called a productive cough. It may also feel like something dripping in the back of your throat.
Various conditions may cause a wet cough, such as:
- a cold or seasonal flu
- acute bronchitis
A wet cough usually lasts less than three weeks but may last much longer. The duration of a producing cough could give some indication of the cause.
Pertussis, better known as whooping cough, is a bacterial infection that causes violent, uncontrollable coughing. Inhaling frantically during a coughing fit causes a “whoop” sound. Hence the name.
Similar to the whooping variety, a paroxysmal cough includes violent fits of coughing.
Common causes include:
Paroxysmal coughs are painful and exhausting. What’s more, patients may struggle to breathe and even vomit.
Benefits of Cough Tracking
How many times have you coughed in the last week? When did it start? What is your baseline or normal coughing frequency?
These are some of the questions that could help diagnose a condition faster or pinpoint effective treatments.
Apps and other technologies do not only track and monitor coughs but can also record information related to coughs. In other words, it keeps track of your cough history.
Additionally, noticing changes in normal cough patterns, such as frequency, clustering, and dispersion, may lead to earlier intervention for dangerous conditions.
Apps that monitor cough patterns have the potential to change the binary “yes” or “no” symptom check into actionable information.
For example, an app may detect symptoms before an individual realizes they’re sick. As a result, it can prevent the spread of infectious diseases such as COVID-19.
Analyzing cough patterns in real-time also enables healthcare workers to provide better care.
In the future, artificial intelligence may learn to differentiate between the acoustic cough signature of a common cold, influenza, and pertussis.
Whether it’s a public health practitioner detecting early signs of an outbreak, or merely an individual keeping tabs on their health, there is so much more we can do with coughs. Now, in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic, it seems like the right time to get started.
Have any questions about cough tracking? Ask us in the comment section below!