Aim: To describe the relationship of gag and cough reflexes to Glasgow coma score (GCS) in Chinese adults requiring critical care.
Method: Prospective observational study of adult patients requiring treatment in the trauma or resuscitation rooms of the Emergency Department, Prince of Wales Hospital, Hong Kong. A long cotton bud to stimulate the posterior pharyngeal wall (gag reflex) and a soft tracheal suction catheter were introduced through the mouth to stimulate the laryngopharynx and elicit the cough reflex. Reflexes were classified as normal, attenuated or absent.
Results: A total of 208 patients were recruited. Reduced gag and cough reflexes were found to be significantly related to reduced GCS (p=0.014 and 0.002, respectively). Of 33 patients with a GCS≤8, 12 (36.4%) had normal gag reflexes and 8 (24.2%) had normal cough reflexes. 23/62 (37.1%) patients with a GCS of 9-14 had absent gag reflexes, and 27 (43.5%) had absent cough reflexes. In patients with a normal GCS, 22.1% (25/113) had absent gag reflexes and 25.7% (29) had absent cough reflexes.
Conclusions: Our study has shown that in a Chinese population with a wide range of critical illness (but little trauma or intoxication), reduced GCS is significantly related to gag and cough reflexes. However, a considerable proportion of patients with a GCS≤8 have intact airway reflexes and may be capable of maintaining their own airway, whilst many patients with a GCS>8 have impaired airway reflexes and may be at risk of aspiration. This has important implications for airway management decisions.
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