After the initial burst of sound, a cough becomes increasingly complex. The vocal cords vibrate. Mucus in the lungs, throat and nose absorb certain wavelengths while emitting their own noises. Most of this mucousal music emerges from the mouth, but some of it also comes from head, neck and chest.
If a doctor already has a disease diagnosis, the sound of a cough could contain clues about how much fluid has built up in a patient's lungs.
Before a definitive diagnose of cold or flu over the phone can be achieved, the scientists need more data. So far the scientists have gathered cough records from several dozen sick patients from a local hospital's emergency department.
To tease out all the relationships between certain noises and specific diseases they estimate they will need about 1,000 cough samples.
With that data the scientists eventually want to develop sound profiles of all respiratory diseases, adjusted for a person's age, weight, sex and other factors that influence coughs.
Any time a person coughs, the sound can be run through the computer, compared to all known cough profiles, and a diagnosis can be confirmed in a few seconds. The software could likely even be installed on cell phones, as a so-called iCough application.