Unexplained cough in the adult

Otolaryngol Clin North Am. 2010 Feb;43(1):167-80, xi-xii. doi: 10.1016/j.otc.2009.11.009.


Unexplained cough is a diagnosis of exclusion that should not be made until a thorough validated diagnostic evaluation is performed, specific and appropriate validated treatments have been tried and failed, and uncommon causes have been ruled out. When chronic cough remains troublesome after the initial work up, determine that a protocol has been used that has been shown to lead to successful results. If such a protocol has been used, next consider whether or not pitfalls in management have been avoided. If they have been, the frequency of truly unexplained chronic cough usually should not exceed 10%. While patients with truly unexplained coughs have an overly sensitive cough reflex, the mere presence of an overly sensitive cough reflex does not by itself explain why they do not get better, because most patients with chronic cough, even those who respond to treatment and get better, have demonstrable heightened cough sensitivity. Management options include referral to a cough clinic with interdisciplinary expertise, speech therapy, and self-limited trials of drugs, preferentially with those shown to be effective in randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled trials in patients with unexplained chronic cough.

MeSH terms

  • Adrenergic Uptake Inhibitors / therapeutic use
  • Adult
  • Amitriptyline / therapeutic use
  • Analgesics, Opioid / therapeutic use
  • Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme Inhibitors / adverse effects
  • Asthma / diagnosis
  • Bronchitis / diagnosis
  • Chronic Disease
  • Cough* / diagnosis
  • Cough* / etiology
  • Cough* / therapy
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Gastroesophageal Reflux / diagnosis
  • Humans
  • Mental Disorders / diagnosis
  • Practice Guidelines as Topic
  • Speech Therapy
  • Vagotomy


  • Adrenergic Uptake Inhibitors
  • Analgesics, Opioid
  • Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme Inhibitors
  • Amitriptyline