Cough that remains unexplained after basic clinical assessment is a common reason for referral to secondary care. Much of the evidence about management of isolated chronic cough is derived from case series; this evidence suggests that isolated chronic cough is usually due to asthma, gastro-oesophageal reflux disease, and upper airway conditions, and that it can be cured in most people by treatment of these conditions. However, there is increasing recognition that satisfactory control of chronic cough is not achieved in a substantial number of patients seen in secondary care. Moreover, there is a concern that perpetuation of the belief that chronic cough is solely due to the effects of comorbid conditions is inhibiting research into the pathophysiology of an abnormally heightened cough reflex, and jeopardising development of improved treatments. We advocate a change in emphasis, which makes a clear distinction between cough due to corticosteroid-responsive eosinophilic airway diseases and corticosteroid-resistant non-eosinophilic cough. We recommend that some factors with weak evidence of an association with cough are best viewed as potential aggravating factors of an intrinsic abnormality of the cough reflex, rather than the cause. We call for more research into the basic mechanisms and pharmacological control of an abnormally heightened cough reflex, and recommend ways to assess the effects of potentially antitussive treatments.