Cough Stigma: How Has COVID-19 Changed Coughing in Public?

Mikaela Millan


August 5, 2021
CoughPro is not a medical product. It is a wellness app intended only for users to obtain a better understanding of their cough. It is not intended to diagnose, monitor, or treat any illness.

We at Hyfe, Inc., are a company devoted to working on tools to better understand the importance of cough. It is Hyfe’s intention in the future to seek regulatory approval for medical products that analyze cough in order that they may be used to diagnose, monitor, and facilitate better treatment of respiratory illnesses.

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Coughing and COVID-19

Coughing is our body’s natural response to prevent foreign substances from entering our lungs. Specifically, a cough may happen when a simple foreign object is in the throat. Or a cough could be just one of many symptoms in certain diseases like asthma, allergies, and colds. However, being the primary symptom in patients with COVID-19, cough now comes with stigma.

Having an infectious disease is generally more stigmatizing than non-communicable diseases. This is because you are more likely to get sick or infect others during social interactions. You will likely be more wary of someone with visible signs of infectious disease (coughing, sneezing, or showing open sores or rashes) compared to someone with a heart condition or a stroke. COVID-19 poses a unique threat as it is a relatively new disease with an alarmingly high fatality rate globally. Thus it causes widespread fear and anxiety. Although we have recently developed vaccines to combat COVID-19, we have yet to see how they will hold up against future variants.

What Does the COVID-19 Cough Stigma Look Like?

Apart from the vaccines, non-medical interventions can curb the spread of the virus. For example, social distancing and quarantine are vital in reducing time and distance in public. These prevent hosts from infecting others. 

Cough etiquette also includes coughing or sneezing into your elbow to prevent spreading COVID-19. However, these behaviors are a source of stress and anxiety. A chronic smoker with a long-term cough reported feeling like a “leper” while he was out shopping, while a person suffering from hay fever expressed feeling on edge about going out, worried about what people would think or say about her sneezing and coughing bouts. On the other side of the coin, research has found that others tend to  perceive these people as “inconsiderate” or without social conscience, lacking in knowledge, and lax with enforcement

How Can We Combat the COVID-19 Cough Stigma?

It is difficult to deny that the overall public perception of these people with cough and sneezing episodes is negative. This can lead to feelings of shame and being socially undesirable, further contributing to discrimination and social exclusion. We know that this can have detrimental long-term effects on one’s mental and emotional health. The stigma can also prompt people to hide their symptoms or delay seeking health care, which makes it more difficult to control the virus’ spread.  

Here are five ways we can help prevent the stigma (according to the Center for Disease Control):

  1. Respect each other’s privacy
  • Do not share another’s personal health information. This is especially true if you have not been with them in any way.
  1. Educate and communicate
  • Explain the risks associated with social interactions.
  • Avoid using negative language that can cause stigma. Use positive language instead, and share accurate information. 
  1. Defend and protect
  • Speak out against hurtful speech and behaviors, including online. 
  • Compassion will go such a long way, especially in these times. 
  1. Use social media responsibly
  • Social media can be a powerful platform to educate and spread awareness on the effects of stigmatization against people with COVID-19. 
  1. Seek help when necessary
  • If you experience any alarming symptoms, consult your physician immediately. 
  • Resources for mental health support are widely available. Please do not hesitate to ask for help when you need it. 

COVID-19 poses a threat not only to our physical health, but also impacts our social, emotional, and mental well-being. In this period of anxiety and uncertainty, let us continue to observe social distancing measures, social isolation if exposed to or experiencing symptoms, and seek immediate health care when necessary. Compassion and empathy will go a long way, as we each do our part to see the end of this pandemic together. 

Learn more about COVID-19, the stigma associated with it, and mental health resources available. 

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