Aims: To examine parents' accounts of how they recognise and judge respiratory symptoms in children, and to investigate their interpretations of respiratory survey questions about wheeze, shortness of breath, and cough.
Methods: Qualitative study using semistructured interviews. Data were analysed using the constant comparative method. Nineteen parents of children aged under 6 years were recruited from a cohort of parents who had responded to an earlier respiratory symptom survey and from one general practice.
Results: Parents judged respiratory symptoms using a range of cues, including changes in the sound of breathing and changes in appearance and behaviour. Experiential resources and contextual factors played an important role in parents' judgements. Interpretations of questions about respiratory symptoms were varied, particularly in relation to the terms "attacks of wheeze" and "shortness of breath". Parents' descriptions of wheeze differed from descriptions of the sound of wheeze used in some survey questionnaires. Parents drew fine distinctions between different "types" of cough and identified a distinct "asthma" cough.
Conclusions: Attention needs to be given to the complexity of reporting respiratory symptoms in children and to the importance of contextual factors in parents' judgements. We suggest that questions which require parents to report on children's internal feelings or states be avoided. Consideration should be given to providing parents with explicit direction on what cues to attend to or ignore in reporting symptoms, and to clarifying some questions that are currently used in clinical practice and in surveys.