Pope Francis coughs after suffering cold in coronavirus-hit Italy

Pope Francis addressed thousands of people in St Peter's Square.

Pope Francis has been seen coughing and sneezing today during his first public appearance in four days after suffering a cold which forced him to cancel several official audiences and activities.

Speaking to thousands of people in St Peter's Square, the Pope announced his cold will force him to skip a week-long Lenten spiritual retreat with senior Vatican officials that had been due to start later in the day.

He appeared at the window of the Vatican's Apostolic Palace for the first time since Wednesday for his weekly Sunday noon message and blessing.

He said: "Unfortunately a cold will force me not take part this year (in the retreat). I will follow the meditations from here."

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It is the first time that Francis has missed the annual retreat in Ariccia, south of Rome, since he became Pope in March 2013.

The pontiff attended the Ash Wednesday mass earlier this week and he appeared to be suffering from a cold.

He was seen blowing his nose and coughing during the service and his voice sounded hoarse.

He attended the Ash Wednesday mass earlier this week and was seen blowing his nose and coughing. Photo: Courtesy.

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The Vatican had previously said only that he was suffering from a "slight indisposition".

His spokesman Matteo Bruni dismissed speculation that Francis was anything more than slightly unwell.

"There is no evidence that would lead to diagnosing anything but a mild indisposition," he said.

On Thursday, The Pope cancelled a trip across Rome to celebrate Mass and on Friday he could not attend a meeting about an artificial intelligence conference.

Despite cancelling official engagements due to his illness, during the week he continued to work from his residence at the Vatican's Santa Marta hotel and received people in private, Mail Online reports.

Pope Francis has taken ill at a time when Italy is battling a surging outbreak of the potentially deadly coronavirus - though there is no suggestion he has it himself.

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Italy has registered more than 1,100 confirmed cases the virus since February 20 and at least 29 deaths, making it the worst affected country in Europe.

Reuters reported that Francis is missing a part of one lung which was removed when he was in his early 20s in his native Buenos Aires after an illness.