Cough reflex sensitivity in cigarette smokers

Chest. 2003 Mar;123(3):685-8. doi: 10.1378/chest.123.3.685.


Study objectives: To evaluate cough reflex sensitivity in a population of young, healthy, male cigarette smokers.

Design: Cross-sectional comparison.

Setting: Academic medical center.

Participants: Twenty healthy, male current-smokers (mean [+/- SEM] age, 32.2 +/- 1.2 years).

Measurements: Subjects underwent baseline spirometry followed by capsaicin cough challenge testing, which involved the inhalation of capsaicin in ascending, doubling concentrations until the concentrations inducing two or more coughs (C(2)) and those inducing five or more coughs (C(5)) were reached. The data were compared to those from a group of 50 healthy, male nonsmokers who had undergone identical cough challenge testing.

Results: The two groups did not differ in terms of age or baseline pulmonary function. Cough sensitivity was significantly diminished in the current-smokers compared to control subjects. The mean (+/- SEM) log C(2) values in smokers and nonsmokers were 1.26 +/- 0.13 and 0.81 +/- 0.08, respectively (p = 0.004). The mean log C(5) values in smokers and nonsmokers were 2.03 +/- 0.10 and 1.20 +/- 0.08, respectively (p < 0.000001).

Conclusions: Cough reflex sensitivity is significantly diminished in young, healthy, male current-smokers compared to a similar population of nonsmokers. The mechanism of cough suppression in smokers remains speculative but may involve long-term tobacco smoke-induced desensitization of the cough receptors within the airway epithelium.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Capsaicin
  • Cough / physiopathology*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Reflex, Abnormal*
  • Respiratory Function Tests
  • Smoking / adverse effects*


  • Capsaicin