Course:PostgradFamilyPractice/ExamPrep/99 Priority Topics/Cough

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Cough - Key Features

1. In patients presenting with an acute cough:
a) Include serious causes (e.g. pneumothorax, pulmonary embolism [PE]) in the differential diagnosis.

Consider life-threatening conditions: pneumothorax, PE, heart failure, exacerbation of asthma or COPD, pneumonia

Approach to cough:

Divide patient population Divide cough
Pediatric: less than 15 yr.

Adult: older than 15 yr.
Special populations: smoker, immunosuppression, chronic (lung) disease

Acute: less than 3 weeks

Subacute: 3-8 weeks
Chronic: more than 8 weeks, more than 4 weeks in children

For subacute cough: if history of infection treat as post-infectious until cough becomes chronic (i.e. lasts longer than 8 weeks), if no history of infection, treat as chronic
In children with acute cough, consider croup, bronchiolitis, pertussis and treat

b) Diagnose a viral infection clinically, principally by taking an appropriate history.

No one sign, symptom or test rules out bacterial infection or rules in viral
However, if no red flag symptoms present, no CXR or further investigation is warranted until the cough persists into chronic phase.

History Red Flag Symptom

Details of cough: Duration, ?productive, impact on function, other symptoms (fever, congestion, muscle aches, SOB, chest pain)
Other medical conditions: asthma, COPD, Heart Disease, cancer, HIV, immune-suppressed
Recent surgery or hospitalization
Smoking status
Medications, recent use of antibiotics
Infectious contacts, vaccination status
Occupation (infectious contacts, irritants, allergens)

Sudden fever - Suggestive of influenza, pneumonia, SARS

Shortness of Breath, chest pain – r/o life threatening causes
Recent surgical procedure – increases likelihood of PE, aspiration, atypical infection
Other health problems – ?exacerbation of lung disease (COPD, asthma), risk of atypical infection (immune suppression, IVDU)
Smoker: get more infections, tend to persist longer
Contact with infected person (influenza, SARS)
Recent travel – increases likelihood of atypical infection

Physical Exam Red Flag Signs
Vitals, weight

Listen for cough in office, judge frequency, severity
Cardiac – including volume status, signs of heart failure

Unusually ill, abnormal vitals

Shortness of breath, respiratory distress
High fever
Reduced air entry, signs of consolidation, restricted air entry
Other signs of DVT
Weight loss, weight gain (if fluid overload)

c) Do not treat viral infections with antibiotics. (Consider antiviral therapy if appropriate.)

Acute bronchitis commonly lasts 7 to 10 days; up to 1 month in 25% of patients
Controversial, but may consider Abx if cough lasts >14 d
Abx do not increase/speed up resolution; but decreases “time feeling ill” by 0.5 days
Most people just want the cough to stop: Cough management options

Non-pharma (possibly more effective) Pharma (expert consensus only)
Decrease or quit smoking

Fluids (keep mucus thin)
Moist/humid air

Beta agonists (only if wheezing)

Codeine, Dextromethapham
1st gen antihistamines

2. In pediatric patients with a persistent (or recurrent) cough, generate a broad differential diagnosis (e.g., gastroesophageal reflux disease [GERD], asthma, rhinitis, presence of a foreign body, pertussis)

In children, divide chronic cough into specific (dx recognizable from description of cough and/or other findings on hx or exam) and non-specific
Specific cough (Table 2)

Type of cough Diagnosis
Barking or brassy cough

Paroxysmal (+/- inspiratory “whoop”)

Croup, tracheomalacia, habit cough

Pertussis and parapertussis
Chlamydia in infants

Sign/Symptom Suggested etiology
Auscultatory findings (wheeze, crackles, differential breath sounds)

Cough characteristics (eg, cough with choking, cough quality, cough starting from birth)
Cardiac abnormalities (including murmurs)
Chest pain
Chest wall deformity
Daily moist or productive cough
Failure to thrive
Feeding difficulties (including choking/vomiting)
Atypical and typical respiratory infections
Neurodevelopmental abnormality
Recurrent pneumonia

Asthma, bronchitis, congenital lung disease, foreign body aspiration, airway abnormality

Congenital lung abnormalities
Any cardiac illness
Asthma, functional, pleuritis
Any chronic lung disease
Chronic bronchitis, suppurative lung disease
Compromised lung function, immunodeficiency, cystic fibrosis
Compromised lung function, primary aspiration
Immune deficiency
Primary or secondary aspiration
Immunodeficiency, congenital lung problem, airway abnormality

See ACCP Algorithm at end of document.

3. In patients with a persistent (e.g., for weeks) cough:
a) Consider non‐pulmonary causes (e.g., GERD, congestive heart failure, rhinitis), as well as other serious causes (e.g. cancer, PE) in the differential diagnosis. (Do not assume that the child has viral bronchitis).

Wide differential, often with multiple causes in the same person.
Start with hx and p/e as for acute cough, plus CXR. Be wary for constitutional symptoms suggestive of cancer or TB infection.
Three most common causes in adults: Post-nasal drip, asthma, GERD

b) Investigate appropriately.

AAFP Algorithm Cough AAFP algorithm.png

4. Do not ascribe a persistent cough to an adverse drug effect (e.g. from an angiotensin‐converting enzyme inhibitor) without first considering other causes.

If cough caused by ACEi, expect resolution within 2 weeks of stopping.

5. In smokers with persistent cough, assess for chronic bronchitis (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and make a positive diagnosis when it is present. (Do not just diagnose a smoker’s cough.)

See COPD topic

ACCP Guidelines. Table 2 show above.
Cough ACCP Guidelines.png

Figure 3
Cough ACCP Guidelines fig 3.png

Study Guide



Worral, G. Acute cough in adults. CFP Jan 2011;57(1):48-51
Coughlin, L. Cough: Diagnosis and Management. AFP 15 Feb 2007; 75(4):567-575

o Summary of American College of Chest Physician Guidelines; has chronic cough algorithm

Worral, G. Acute cough in children. CFP Mar 2011; 57(3): 315–318
Irwin, R. et al. Diagnosis and Management of Cough: ACCP Evidence-Based Clinical Practice Guidelines. Chest. 1 Jan 2006; 129(1 suppl):1S-292S

o Really dense; stick with the AFP Summary

Chang, A and Glomb, W. Guidelines for Evaluating Chronic Cough in Pediatrics. Chest. Jan 2006; 129(1 suppl):260S-283S