Chapter: Cough
McMaster Section Editor(s): Paul M. O’Byrne
Section Editor(s) in Interna Szczeklika: Ewa Niżankowska-Mogilnicka, Filip Mejza
McMaster Author(s): Imran Satia
Author(s) in Interna Szczeklika: Wojciech Szczeklik, Miłosz Jankowski
Additional Information


Cough is the most common symptom for which patients seek medical attention. It is a protective reflex that clears the airways of excess secretions, foreign bodies, and noxious and harmful environmental irritants. Cough consists of a deep inspiration followed by expiration with an initial brief glottic closure. The high pressure generated in the chest and lungs results in a forceful expulsion of air after the opening of the glottis, which drives particles out of the airway. In most cases coughing can occur appropriately as an automatic defensive reflex, but in ~12% of the general population chronic cough can become a persistent troublesome symptom.

Causes and PathogenesisTop

1. Classification based on duration of cough:

1) Acute cough: Persists for <3 weeks. The causes are most frequently infection (usually viral upper respiratory tract infection), bronchitis, and allergy; or less frequently, aspiration, pulmonary embolism, pulmonary edema, or pneumonia. Acute cough may be a physiological response to a foreign body in the airways as well as to irritant dust or chemicals.

2) Subacute cough: Persists for 3 to 8 weeks. Most frequently caused by viral infections.

3) Chronic cough: Persists for >8 weeks, peaks in patients in their 50s and 60s, and is twice as common in women compared with men. Causes: Table. Most frequent causes of chronic….

2. Classification based on characteristics of cough:

1) Nonproductive (so-called dry) cough may be caused by viral infections, asthma, interstitial lung disease, and smoking. It may occur with use of angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors (ACEIs) (cough affects up to 14% of patients treated with this class of drugs; mechanism is currently unclear; cough can often occur after a long latency and can continue for many months after drug discontinuation).

2) Productive cough leading to expectoration of sputum. Characteristics and causes of expectorated sputum:

a) Purulent sputum (green or yellow): Bronchiectasis, primary ciliary dyskinesia, sinusitis, chronic bronchitis, pneumonia, tuberculosis.

b) Copious purulent sputum: Bronchiectasis. A sudden-onset production of copious purulent sputum may indicate rupture of a lung abscess into a bronchus.

c) Foul-smelling sputum: Usually present in anaerobic infection. Consider abscess and food aspiration.

d) Mucous, thick, viscous sputum occurring most frequently in the morning: Chronic bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma.

e) Clear, viscous sputum: Asthma, rarely adenocarcinoma.

f) Sputum with aggregates and plugs: Fungal infection, allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis, cystic fibrosis.

g) Sputum with food particles: Tracheoesophageal fistula, dysphagia with aspiration.

h) Bloody sputum (hemoptysis): Consider malignancy, tuberculosis, pulmonary embolus, vasculitis, rarely arteriovenous malformations in hereditary hemorrhagic telangiectasia (also known as Osler-Weber-Rendu syndrome).

3. Causes of ineffective cough: Weakness of the respiratory or abdominal muscles secondary to neurological impairment (peripheral and central causes) or muscle weakness (Pompe disease), impaired chest mobility, increased mucus viscosity, ciliary dysfunction.

4. Complications of cough: Syncope (more common in men), secondary spontaneous pneumothorax, rib fractures (usually pathologic fractures, eg, due to tumor metastasis), injury to the intercostal muscles or nerves resulting in musculoskeletal pain.

Diagnostic WorkupTop

1. History and physical examination: Investigate the character of cough, triggering and relieving factors, and accompanying symptoms to establish the diagnosis (Table. Most frequent causes of chronic…).

2. Diagnostic tests:

1) Acute and subacute cough, if not accompanied by symptoms causing concern (dyspnea, hemoptysis, persistent weight loss or fever, night sweats, loss of consciousness), is usually caused by viral infection and does not require further evaluation. In patients with symptoms raising suspicion of an alternative disease, perform chest radiography, assess blood oxygenation (pulse oximetry, blood gas analysis), and, depending on suspected cause, perform cardiovascular (electrocardiography [ECG], echocardiogram) or respiratory (chest x-ray [CXR] or computed tomography [CT], bronchoscopy, pulmonary function tests) diagnostics. In patients with productive cough, perform microbiological examination of sputum including mycology and mycobacteria.

2) Chronic cough: Start with chest imaging studies (usually chest radiography; if necessary, high-resolution chest CT with inspiratory/expiratory and prone/supine views), pulmonary function tests (spirometry with reversibility assessment), and ear, nose, and throat (ENT) examination. In patients with productive cough, perform microbiological and cytologic examination of the sputum. Perform bronchoscopy as deemed necessary, particularly in patients with a suspicion of cancer, presence of a foreign body, tracheobronchomalacia, or eosinophilic bronchitis. In some patients exhaled nitric oxide, sputum induction, and bronchial challenge testing should be considered to investigate for eosinophilic bronchitis and asthma. Upper gastrointestinal endoscopy and esophageal pH-manometry may be necessary (as diagnostics of gastroesophageal reflux disease [GERD]; in some cases a trial course of GERD treatment may be used).


Symptomatic Treatment of Productive Cough

In patients with a productive cough secondary to excessive mucus leading to airway plugging and recurrent infections, it is suggested to use the following measures that facilitate the evacuation of airway secretions and increase the effectiveness of cough: respiratory physiotherapy (postural drainage, chest percussion and vibration, educating the patient how to cough effectively), nebulized hypertonic saline (5%-7% NaCl), airway suctioning using a suction catheter (in intubated patients) or a flexible bronchoscope (particularly if secretions lead to atelectasis). Mucolytic agents (acetylcysteine, ambroxol, bromhexine, carbocysteine [INN carbocisteine], ammonium chloride, guaifenesin) are less useful. We suggest a trial of a low-dose macrolide antibiotic (azithromycin 250 mg daily or 3 times/wk) for 6 to 12 months in patients with bronchiectasis and recurrent infective exacerbation.Evidence 1Weak recommendation (benefits likely outweigh downsides, but the balance is close or uncertain; an alternative course of action may be better for some patients). Moderate Quality of Evidence (moderate confidence that we know true effects of the intervention). Quality of Evidence lowered due to the small sample size (imprecision) and incomplete clinically relevant outcomes. Wong C, Jayaram L, Karalus N, et al. Azithromycin for prevention of exacerbations in non-cystic fibrosis bronchiectasis (EMBRACE): a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Lancet. 2012 Aug 18;380(9842):660-7. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(12)60953-2. PubMed PMID: 22901887. Altenburg J, de Graaff CS, Stienstra Y, et al. Effect of azithromycin maintenance treatment on infectious exacerbations among patients with non-cystic fibrosis bronchiectasis: the BAT randomized controlled trial. JAMA. 2013 Mar 27;309(12):1251-9. doi: 10.1001/jama.2013.1937. PubMed PMID: 23532241. Serisier DJ, Martin ML, McGuckin MA, et al. Effect of long-term, low-dose erythromycin on pulmonary exacerbations among patients with non-cystic fibrosis bronchiectasis: the BLESS randomized controlled trial. JAMA. 2013 Mar 27;309(12):1260-7. doi: 10.1001/jama.2013.2290. PubMed PMID: 23532242. However, care should be taken to exclude nontuberculous mycobacteria and ensure monitoring of cardiac arrhythmias (long QTc), hearing loss, and gastrointestinal adverse effects (diarrhea). In exceptional cases, in patients receiving palliative care who are too weak to expectorate effectively, you may use drugs that decrease the production of airway secretions (eg, subcutaneous hyoscine 20-40 mg/d) combined with cough suppressants.

Symptomatic Treatment of Dry Cough

There are currently no medications licensed or approved by the US Food and Drug Administration or European Medicines Agency for the treatment of chronic cough. However, if treatment of the underlying condition, such as asthma, GERD, and postnasal drip, is ineffective or not feasible, management algorithms can consider the following treatment options:

1) Centrally acting cough suppressants: The vast majority of over-the-counter cough syrups contain dextromethorphan, which is used in doses of 60 to 120 mg/d, but this has very little evidence for clinical efficacy. It is acknowledged that swallowing syrups and honey and sucking lozenges may provide a soothing and demulcent effect in the case of transient throat irritation. Among opioids, oral morphine sulfate (modified release), usually at a dose of 5 mg every 12 hours and increasing to a maximum of 10 mg, is a common medication used in most tertiary specialist cough clinics.Evidence 2Weak recommendation (benefits likely outweigh downsides, but the balance is close or uncertain; an alternative course of action may be better for some patients). Low Quality of Evidence (low confidence that we know true effects of the intervention). Quality of Evidence lowered due to imprecision (small number of patients) and indirectness (tertiary care). Morice AH, Menon MS, Mulrennan SA, et al. Opiate therapy in chronic cough. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2007 Feb 15;175(4):312-5. Epub 2006 Nov 22. PubMed PMID: 17122382. Badri H, Satia I, Woodcock A, Smith JA. The use of low dose morphine for the management of chronic cough in a tertiary cough clinic. Presented at the American Thoracic Society 2015 International Conference. Abstract. No comparable evidence exists for the use of codeine. Gabapentin and the related medication pregabalin have been evaluated in studies with improvement in cough but their doses need to be carefully titrated up to prevent adverse effects, such as hallucinations, dizziness, and unsteadiness.Evidence 3Weak recommendation (benefits likely outweigh downsides, but the balance is close or uncertain; an alternative course of action may be better for some patients). Moderate Quality of Evidence (moderate confidence that we know true effects of the intervention). Quality of Evidence lowered due to the short duration of study and relatively few involved patients. Ryan NM, Birring SS, Gibson PG. Gabapentin for refractory chronic cough: a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Lancet. 2012 Nov 3;380(9853):1583-9. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(12)60776-4. Epub 2012 Aug 28. PubMed PMID: 22951084. In selected patients with chronic cough presumed to be related to a previous viral infection, amitriptyline 10 mg at night has been shown to be superior to codeine plus guaifenesin.Evidence 4Weak recommendation (benefits likely outweigh downsides, but the balance is close or uncertain; an alternative course of action may be better for some patients). Low Quality of Evidence (low confidence that we know true effects of the intervention). Quality of Evidence lowered due to the small number of involved patients and indirectness (very specific population included [post-viral vagal neuropathy]). Jeyakumar A, Brickman TM, Haben M. Effectiveness of amitriptyline versus cough suppressants in the treatment of chronic cough resulting from postviral vagal neuropathy. Laryngoscope. 2006 Dec;116(12):2108-12. PubMed PMID: 17146380.

2) Speech and language therapy: Recent studies have recognized beneficial outcomes of cough-specific therapy aimed towards education, reduction of laryngeal irritation, cough-control techniques, and psychoeducational counseling.Evidence 5Weak recommendation (benefits likely outweigh downsides, but the balance is close or uncertain; an alternative course of action may be better for some patients). Moderate Quality of Evidence (moderate confidence that we know true effects of the intervention). Quality of Evidence lowered due to imprecision (low number of patients) and indirectness (short trial duration). Chamberlain Mitchell SA, Garrod R, Clark L, et al. Physiotherapy, and speech and language therapy intervention for patients with refractory chronic cough: a multicentre randomised control trial. Thorax. 2017 Feb;72(2):129-136. doi: 10.1136/thoraxjnl-2016-208843. Epub 2016 Sep 28. PubMed PMID: 27682331. Birring SS, Floyd S, Reilly CC, Cho PSP. Physiotherapy and Speech and Language therapy intervention for chronic cough. Pulm Pharmacol Ther. 2017 Apr 4. pii: S1094-5539(17)30011-1. doi: 10.1016/j.pupt.2017.04.001. [Epub ahead of print] Review. PubMed PMID: 28389257. Such techniques have also shown to be more effective in combination with pregabalin.Evidence 6Weak recommendation (benefits likely outweigh downsides, but the balance is close or uncertain; an alternative course of action may be better for some patients). Moderate Quality of Evidence (moderate confidence that we know true effects of the intervention). Quality of Evidence lowered due to the relatively small number of involved patients and short durations of trials. Vertigan AE, Theodoros DG, Gibson PG, Winkworth AL. Efficacy of speech pathology management for chronic cough: a randomised placebo controlled trial of treatment efficacy. Thorax. 2006 Dec;61(12):1065-9. Epub 2006 Jul 14. PubMed PMID: 16844725; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC2117063. Vertigan AE, Kapela SL, Ryan NM, Birring SS, McElduff P, Gibson PG. Pregabalin and Speech Pathology Combination Therapy for Refractory Chronic Cough: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Chest. 2016 Mar;149(3):639-48. doi: 10.1378/chest.15-1271. Epub 2016 Jan 12. PubMed PMID: 26447687.

3) Local anesthetics (lidocaine or bupivacaine aerosols) are used mainly for short-term suppression of the cough reflex before bronchoscopy or airway suctioning. In very rare cases these agents may be nebulized in patients with a cough not responding to other treatment. Due to the risk of choking, stop oral intake of liquids and solid foods optimally 4 hours before and for at least 2 hours after nebulization or until the anesthetic effect has resolved.

4) Treatment for cancer-related cough: In patients with cough caused by airway edema, compression by tumors, lymphangitis, or pneumonitis following radiotherapy or chemotherapy, consider a trial course of glucocorticoids (usually dexamethasone 4 mg bid) for 2 to 4 weeks. In other scenarios consider levodropropizine 60 mg up to tid at intervals ≥6 hours. Aprepitant 125 mg 1 hour before chemotherapy then 80 mg daily as a single dose for the next 2 days has been evaluated mainly in patients with cancer. Inhaled sodium cromoglycate 40 microg/d can be tried. Use centrally-acting cough suppressants only if treatment with glucocorticoids is inappropriate or ineffective.


Table. Most frequent causes of chronic cough


Accompanying signs and symptoms, cough characteristics, sputum production

Asthma or (much less often) eosinophilic bronchitis

Attack of cough may be triggered by exposure to specific or nonspecific factors, such as allergens, cold air, exercise; cough often occurring at night; accompanied by dyspnea and wheezing; good response to bronchodilators and inhaled glucocorticoids; mucous sputum, may be yellowish (high eosinophil content)

Gastroesophageal reflux

Most often accompanied by heartburn and other dyspeptic symptoms, but GI symptoms may be absent; sometimes accompanied by hoarseness or dysphonia; improved by PPI and histamine2 antagonist treatment (2-month treatment recommended)

Postnasal drip

Chronic rhinitis with postnasal drip; often history of allergy; concomitant chronic sinusitis; most frequently mucous sputum; “cobblestone” pattern of posterior pharyngeal mucosa

Chronic bronchitis or COPD

History of smoking and frequent respiratory tract infections; most severe in the morning and immediately after waking up; often resolves on expectoration of mucous secretions


Copious amounts of expectorated sputum (especially in the morning), often purulent, yellow and green


Dry cough resolving after drug discontinuation, although in some cases may persist for several months

Pneumonia, lung abscess, tuberculosis, sarcoidosis, tumors

Manifestations of underlying condition depending on its severity

Left ventricular failure, mitral stenosis, aortic aneurysm compressing trachea or bronchi

Usually attacks of dry cough at night; may be accompanied by wheezing; pink frothy secretions in patients with pulmonary edema; cardiovascular manifestations; considerably enlarged left atrium or dilated pulmonary artery may compress recurrent laryngeal nerve and cause hoarseness

Chronic idiopathic cough

No cause identified but attributed to cough hypersensitivity syndrome; commonly triggered by strong smells, perfumes, aerosols, change in temperature, talking, laughing, and singing; symptoms of irritation of throat and chest

ACEI, angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitor; COPD, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; GI, gastrointestinal; PPI, proton pump inhibitor.

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