Home Print this page Email this page Small font size Default font size Increase font size
Users Online: 2525
Home About us Editorial board Search Ahead of print Current issue Archives Submit article Instructions Subscribe Contacts Login 

 Table of Contents 
Year : 2014  |  Volume : 3  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 207-212  

Therapeutic-diagnostic evaluation of chronic cough amongst adults: causes, symptoms and management at the primary care level, Malaysia

Department of Outpatient, Seremban Primary Care Health Clinic, Seremban, Malaysia

Date of Web Publication24-Sep-2014

Correspondence Address:
Yogarabindranath Swarna Nantha
Department of Primary Healthcare Outpatient, Seremban Primary Care Health Clinic, Seremban
Login to access the Email id

Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/2249-4863.141611

Rights and Permissions

Background: Patients presenting with chronic cough pose a common diagnostic dilemma during routine consultations at public primary care clinics in Malaysia. To date, there has been little attempt at designing a standardized model or algorithm to facilitate an accurate diagnosis of chronic cough. This study proposes a clinical method to detect the causes of chronic cough in a primary care setting in Malaysia. Materials and Methods: A total of 117 patients aged above 18 at an urban primary care clinic were tracked over a span of 5 months to diagnose the cause of chronic cough. A therapeutic-diagnostic method was employed to help identify the causes of chronic cough. Subsequently, the demographic details of patients, the prevalence of the different causes of chronic cough and the relationship between history and diagnosis were analyzed statistically. Results: Chronic cough had a slightly higher male preponderance (51.3% vs. 48.7%). Patients within the 'above 60' age category had the highest frequency of chronic cough. The most common cause of chronic cough was post-infectious cough (n = 42, 35.9%), followed closely by angiotensin-converting enzyme-inhibitor related cough (n = 14, 12%). Majority of patients had the symptom of phlegm production (n = 41, 54%). 33 patients (29.2%) had recent upper respiratory tract infection (<2 weeks ago) prior to the diagnosis of chronic cough. There were poor association between symptoms and the various entities comprising chronic cough. The exceptions were the following associations: (1) Bronchial asthma and itchiness of throat (P = 0021), (2) gastroesophageal reflux disease and heartburn (P < 0.001), (3) upper airway cough syndrome and running nose (P = 0.016) and (4) pulmonary tuberculosis and absence of weight loss (P = 0.004). Conclusion: This study demonstrates that the effectiveness of a therapeutic-diagnostic technique in the diagnosis of chronic cough. Consistent with previous studies, there was poor association between most symptoms and the causes of chronic cough. A study involving a larger primary care population is required to confirm the findings found in this analysis.

Keywords: Angiotensin-converting enzyme-I related cough, chronic cough, post-infectious cough, primary care, therapeutic-diagnostic evaluation

How to cite this article:
Nantha YS. Therapeutic-diagnostic evaluation of chronic cough amongst adults: causes, symptoms and management at the primary care level, Malaysia . J Family Med Prim Care 2014;3:207-12

How to cite this URL:
Nantha YS. Therapeutic-diagnostic evaluation of chronic cough amongst adults: causes, symptoms and management at the primary care level, Malaysia . J Family Med Prim Care [serial online] 2014 [cited 2021 Sep 28];3:207-12. Available from: https://www.jfmpc.com/text.asp?2014/3/3/207/141611

  Introduction Top

In most developing nations, common causes of chronic cough are upper airway cough syndrome (UACS), non-asthmatic eosinophilic bronchitis (NAEB) and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). [1] Finding the cause for chronic cough in a population remains a diagnostic challenge for most primary care physicians. This requires closer scrutiny as cough still remains as the single most important reason why patients seek medical consultation. [2]

Cough can be classified into acute, sub-acute and chronic cough based on the duration of symptoms. [3] A generally accepted definition of chronic cough is an episode of cough lasting more than 8 weeks. [4] In Malaysia, physicians are recommended to promptly identify the cause of a cough lasting more than 2 weeks, with pulmonary tuberculosis as a primary concern. [5]

Studies have shown that despite adherence to an established protocol in the diagnosis and treatment of chronic cough, a large number of patients do not find significant improvement in symptoms or seem to be only partially treated for their illness. [6] The diagnosis of chronic cough is complex, involving multiple entities that present simultaneously. [7] It is also known that a detailed history taking process does not significantly assist in distinguishing the various causes of chronic cough. [7]

Currently in Malaysia, no studies have been conducted to ascertain the major causes of chronic cough and its relationship to presenting symptoms. Thus, the focus of this study is to determine the prevalence of the various causes of chronic cough, its relationship to common symptoms and the evaluation the significance of a therapeutic-diagnostic method in clinical practice.

  Materials and Methods Top

A prospective cohort study was conducted on patients (aged above 18 years old) who presented to a public primary health care clinic with the chief complaint of cough lasting more than 2 weeks. It was carried out between January and May 2013. A structured questionnaire was used to collect socio-demographic data, history, physical findings, investigations, diagnosis and prescribing data. The questionnaire was used by the researcher to collect information during the assessment of each patient. Patients were monitored for at least 3 months (or until symptom resolution) to gather information about the progress in the treatment and the provisional diagnosis of the cause of the chronic cough.

The questionnaire was designed by the researcher after an extensive review of the assessment methods that help diagnose the causes of chronic cough [Table 1]. [8],[9],[10],[11],[12] Based on information gathered from the literature review, a general guideline was formulated using therapeutic or investigative measures (therapeutic-diagnostic method) and salient history derived from patients.
Table 1: Evidence-based evaluation of patients with chronic cough

Click here to view

Ethical consideration

This project was approved by the Medical Research and Ethics Committee of Malaysia (Research ID: NMRR-13-141-14935). The questionnaire was anonymous and confidentiality was maintained.

Statistical analysis

The sample size estimation of 91 patients was calculated using a confidence interval of 95% and the margin of error of 5%. Based on a similar study conducted in Sweden, [13] the prevalence level of chronic cough was set at 6.5%. Another study in a more Asian environment revealed a lower prevalence of 2.5%, giving a sample size of only 37. [14]

 SPSS software (IBM® SPSS® Statistics Version 20) was used to interpret the statistical data obtained from the study. An analysis of the demographic details of the study population was performed. The calculation of the frequency and the prevalence of the various disease entities classified under the diagnosis of chronic cough were made. Finally, χ2 methods were employed to determine the association between symptoms and diagnosis of chronic cough.

  Results Top

Demographics of and prevalence of chronic cough in primary care patients 

Out of the 151 patients recruited into the study, 117 patients with chronic cough were given a provisional diagnosis at the end of their respective consultation over the span of 3 months. The remaining 34 patients were excluded from the study for the following reasons - 11 failed to attend scheduled appointments, 21 had missing details and could not be contacted, 1 was not a suitable candidate (the patient had been diagnosed with a possible cause of chronic cough prior to the commencement of the study) and 1 was a repeat sample.

The demographic details of the study population are summarized in [Table 2]. There were an equal equal number of male (51.3%) and female (48.7%) patients with the complaint of chronic cough at the primary care center. The lowest rates of chronic cough cases (5.1%) were seen in the 30-39 age category. On the other hand, the highest levels of chronic cough were seen within the above 60 age group (35.9%).
Table 2: Demographics of patients presenting to the primary care clinic with chronic cough

Click here to view

Most patients seeking treatment at the clinic were of Chinese ethnicity (47%). Many patients had secondary school education (29.1%) and those without any formal education formed a smaller part of the analysis (11.1%).

Pattern of chronic cough in primary care

Prevalence of the causes of chronic cough 

The prevalence of the causes of chronic cough is summarized in [Table 3]. 42 out of 117 patients (35.9%) had post-infectious cough while 14 patients had angiotensin converting enzyme-inhibitor induced cough (ACE-I) (12.0%). 11 patients were diagnosed with UACS or acute bronchitis (9.4%), followed by 8 patients with chronic obstructive airways disease (COAD) (6.8%). There were only 2 (1.7%) cases of possible lung cancer and 3 (2.6%) cases of pneumonia.
Table 3: Prevalence of the various causes of chronic cough

Click here to view

Gender comparison

Male patients were frequently diagnosed with post-infectious cough (33.3%), followed by UACS (13.3%), ACE-I related cough (13.3%), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) (11.7%) and heart failure (10%). Females were often diagnosed with post-infectious cough (38.6%), followed by acute bronchitis (14.0%), ACE-I related cough (10.5%) and GERD (8.8%) respectively. Males had higher rates of the heart failure (85.7%) and UACS (72.7%). There was a preponderance of bronchial asthma (BA) (80.0%), acute bronchitis (72.7%) and GERD (71.4%) cases amongst the female population. The comparison between gender and the causes of chronic cough did not yield any statistical significant results.

Age and ethnic group comparison

COPD (62.5%), ACE-I cough (50%), post-infectious cough (35.7%) and suspected lung cancer (50%) were more prevalent in the population with the age of above 60 years old. Heart failure was more frequent in the above 60 and 50-59 age category (42.9% respectively). PTB was detected more frequently in the 18-29 age group (57.1%). The 40-49 age group had higher levels of GERD (42.9%) and pneumonia (66.7%).

Acute bronchitis and heart failure rates were more common amongst Indians (54.5% and 71.4%). COPD and UACS were prevalent in the ethnic Chinese community (50% and 54.5%).

Clinical symptoms, pertinent history and its relationship to the diagnosis of chronic cough

 Chief complaint and past medical history

The four most common symptoms found in patients were phlegm production (54.0%), night cough (51.3%), itchiness of the throat (38.7%) and running nose (35.7%). Vomiting (2.7%), hoarseness of voice (2.7%), weight loss (7.1%) and hemoptysis (9.8%) were rare symptoms. No patients had either whooping cough or maxillary toothache [Table 4] and [Table 5].
Table 4: Common symptoms in study population

Click here to view
Table 5: Past medical history in study population

Click here to view

The four most common positive findings in the past medical history were recent upper respiratory tract infection (29.2%), ACE-I intake (14.3%), previous history of atopy (11.6%) and history of diabetes mellitus (11.6%). Least common were previous history of tuberculosis infection (1.8%), passive smoking (1.8%) and a previous episode of sinusitis (1.8%). None of the patients had a previous history of heart failure or COAD.

Relationship of diagnosis and symptoms

Most symptoms elicited from the study population had no significant association to a particular cause of chronic cough [Table 6]. However, there was a significant association between BA and itchiness of the throat (P = 0.021, Fisher's exact test). Patients diagnosed with GORD had a significant association with heartburn (P < 0.001, Fisher's exact test). UACS was related to the symptom of running nose (P = 0.016, Fisher's exact test) and the diagnosis of PTB was not associated with weight loss (P = 0.004, Fisher's exact test).
Table 6: Relationship between causes of chronic cough and symptoms

Click here to view

The efficacy of the therapeutic-diagnostic method in diagnosing the causes of chronic cough

The diagnostic method employed in the study helped to establish the provisional diagnosis for all 117 patients by the end of the 5 month follow-up. The diagnosis was considered valid when (1) The patient has experienced resolution of symptoms and/or (2) A positive finding is found through targeted investigations.

  Discussion Top

A mixed approach of 'test and treat' and 'treat to test' was adopted in this study. This facilitated the formulation of a provisional diagnosis for all 117 patients in the study. This is consistent with the evidence from current literature that seem to indicate that therapeutic-diagnostic method has a success rate of 90% in determining the causes of unexplained chronic cough. [15]

Consistent with a previous finding, [15] post-infectious cough was identified as the most common cause of chronic cough in this study. Although UACS, cough variant asthma and esophageal disease were seen as the major contributors to chronic cough, much of these studies were carried out at a specialist center. [17] Hence, the results of this study exclusively reflects the trend seen amongst patients with chronic cough at a primary care setting.

In a study designed to systematically diagnose patients with chronic cough, ACE-I related cough was found to be the least common cause of chronic cough. [18] However, results of this study indicate that ACE-I related cough was the second most common cause of chronic cough at a primary care setting. We believe that this could be attributed to an increase in availability of specialty services to patients with chronic diseases (non-communicable disease programs) at the public primary care level in Malaysia. [19]

There was a poor association between symptoms, past medical history and the various causes of chronic cough. Clinical history to aid only marginally in diagnosing the causes of chronic cough in these patients. Parallel to these findings, studies and guidelines have linked effective diagnosis of chronic cough to a combination of investigative or treatment specific protocol instead of detailed evaluation through history. [4],[20],[21]

At present, no formal studies have been undertaken to assess the efficacy of a standardized clinical model to diagnose the numerous causes of chronic cough in Malaysia, especially at a primary care setting. Using a summary of evidence-based criterions derived from international guidelines, the results of this study suggest that a validated diagnostic and treatment protocol [4] could help identify the causes chronic cough at a primary care level. In a recent research exploring the evaluation of cases with chronic cough, [22] a large number of patients were successfully managed using a similar therapeutic-diagnostic algorithm employed in this study.

Study limitations

There are several limitations of this study. The study population was selected from a single regional primary care clinic. Hence, the result obtained might not be representative of all primary care clinics in Malaysia.

The term 'chronic cough' used in this study was inclusive of the criterions that met the requirements of subacute and chronic cough as suggested by Pratter et al. [4] During the study, patients with cough episodes between 3 to 8 weeks were still considered 'chronic' but were given a diagnosis of acute bronchitis which is a common cause of subacute cough. [3]

Although NAEB is a commonly under-diagnosed cause for chronic cough, [23] no attempt was made to diagnose NAEB in the study population. This was due to the lack of access to sputum eosinophil count at the institution where this study was conducted. Due to the small sample size, the study design was not able to establish an accurate or clear causal link between symptoms and diagnosis of chronic cough. A larger prospective cohort study involving many regional primary care clinics might help confirm the findings seen in this study.

  Conclusion and Recommendations Top

The findings in the study seem to indicate that a therapeutic-diagnostic strategy could serve as an effective method in the diagnosis of the causes of chronic cough in a primary care population in Malaysia. The therapeutic-diagnostic model could enable clinicians to perform a targeted screening of the numerous causes of chronic cough through salient history and confirm the diagnosis by monitoring the response to treatment. This could lead to greater accuracy in the clinical assessment of chronic cough which, in turn, could step up the process of treatment of these patients.

  Acknowledgement Top

The author would like to thank the Director General of Health Malaysia for permission to publish this paper.

  References Top

1.De Blasio F, Virchow JC, Polverino M, Zanasi A, Behrakis PK, Kilinç G, et al. Cough management: A practical approach. Cough 2011;7:7.  Back to cited text no. 1
2.Cherry D, Hing E, Woodwell D, Rechtsteiner, EA. National ambulatory medical care survey: 2006 summary. Report, National Health Statistics Reports, 2008.  Back to cited text no. 2
3.Irwin RS, Baumann MH, Bolser DC, Boulet LP, Braman SS BC et al. Diagnosis and management of cough executive summary: ACCP evidence-based clinical practice guidelines. Chest 2012;129 Suppl 1:1S-33S.  Back to cited text no. 3
4.Pratter MR, Brightling CE, Boulet LP, Irwin RS. An empiric integrative approach to the management of cough: ACCP evidence-based clinical practice guidelines. Chest 2006;239:222S-31S.  Back to cited text no. 4
5.Ministry of Health Malaysia. Management of Tuberculosis. 3 rd ed. (Abdul Rahman JA, ed.). Putrajaya: Ministry Of Health Malaysia; 2012:1-109.  Back to cited text no. 5
6.Pavord ID, Chung KF. Chronic cough 2: Management of chronic cough. Lancet 2008;371:1375-84.  Back to cited text no. 6
7.Pratter MR. Overview of common causes of chronic cough: ACCP evidence-based clinical practice guidelines. Chest 2006;129:59-62.  Back to cited text no. 7
8.Joad JP, Sekizawa S, Chen CY, Bonham AC. Air pollutants and cough. Pulm Pharmacol Ther 2007;20:347-54.  Back to cited text no. 8
9.McGarvey LPA. Idiopathic chronic cough: A real disease or a failure of diagnosis? Cough 2005;1:9.  Back to cited text no. 9
10.Thiadens H, De Bock G, Dekker F, Huysman J, Van Houwelingen J, Springer M, et al. Identifying asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in patients with persistent cough presenting to general practitioners: Descriptive study. BMJ 1998;316:1286-1290.  Back to cited text no. 10
11.World Health Organization. Treatment of Tuberculosis, Guidelines Geneva: World Health Organization; 2010.  Back to cited text no. 11
12.Hamilton W, Sharp D. Diagnosis of lung cancer in primary care: A structured review. Fam Pract 2004;21:605-11.  Back to cited text no. 12
13.Bende M, Millqvist E. Prevalence of chronic cough in relation to upper and lower airway symptoms; the Skövde population-based study. Front Physiol 2012; 3:1-4.  Back to cited text no. 13
14.Mahesh PA, Jayaraj BS, Prabhakar AK, Chaya SK, Vijayasimha R. Prevalence of chronic cough, chronic phlegm and associated factors in Mysore, Karnataka, India. Indian J Med Res 2011;134:91-100.  Back to cited text no. 14
[PUBMED]  Medknow Journal  
15.Gahbauer M, Keane P. Chronic cough: Stepwise application in primary care practice of the ACCP guidelines for diagnosis and management of cough. J Am Acad Nurse Pract 2009;21:409-16.  Back to cited text no. 15
16.Kwon N, Oh M, Min T, Lee B, Choi, DC. Causes and clinical features of subacute cough. Chest 2006;129:1142-7.  Back to cited text no. 16
17.Morice A, Fontana G, Sovijarvi A, Pistolesi M, Chung K, Widdicombe J, et al. The diagnosis and management of chronic cough. Eur Resp J 2004;24:481-92.  Back to cited text no. 17
18.Carney I, Gibson P, Murree-Allen K, Saltos N, Olson L, Hensley, MJ. A systematic evaluation of mechanisms in chronic cough. Am J Resp Crit Care 1997;156:211-16.  Back to cited text no. 18
19.Ramli AS, Taher SW. Managing chronic diseases in the Malaysian primary health care-a need for change. Malaysia Fam Physician 2008;3:7-13.  Back to cited text no. 19
20.McGarvey LPA, Heaney LG, Lawson JT, Johnston BT, Scally CM, Ennis M, et al. Evaluation and outcome of patients with chronic non-productive cough using a comprehensive diagnostic protocol. Thorax 1998;53:738-743.  Back to cited text no. 20
21.Mello CJ, Irwin RS, Curley FJ. Predictive values of the character, timing, and complications of chronic cough in diagnosing its cause. Arch Intern Med 1996;156:997-1003.  Back to cited text no. 21
22.Ojoo JC, Everett CF, Mulrennan SA, Faruqi S, Kastelik JA, Morice AH. Management of patients with chronic cough using a clinical protocol: A prospective observational study. Cough 2013;9:2.  Back to cited text no. 22
23.Brightling CE, Ward R, Goh KL, Wardlaw AJ, Pavord ID. Eosinophilic bronchitis is an important cause of chronic cough. Am J Crit Care Med 1999; 160:406-10.  Back to cited text no. 23


  [Table 1], [Table 2], [Table 3], [Table 4], [Table 5], [Table 6]

This article has been cited by
1 Upper airway cough syndrome may be the main cause of chronic cough in Japan: a cohort study
Kimihiko Yasuda
Family Practice. 2021;
[Pubmed] | [DOI]
2 Prevalence, aetiologies and prognosis of the symptom cough in primary care: a systematic review and meta-analysis
Milena Bergmann,Jörg Haasenritter,Dominik Beidatsch,Sonja Schwarm,Kaja Hörner,Stefan Bösner,Paula Grevenrath,Laura Schmidt,Annika Viniol,Norbert Donner-Banzhoff,Annette Becker
BMC Family Practice. 2021; 22(1)
[Pubmed] | [DOI]
3 Approach of primary physicians in management of chronic cough, in Najran city, Saudi Arabia
Nasser Saeed Alqahtani
Open Respiratory Archives. 2020;
[Pubmed] | [DOI]
4 Evaluation of Occupational and Environmental Factors in the Assessment of Chronic Cough in Adults
Susan M. Tarlo,Kenneth W. Altman,Cynthia T. French,Rebecca L. Diekemper,Richard S. Irwin
Chest. 2016; 149(1): 143
[Pubmed] | [DOI]


Similar in PUBMED
   Search Pubmed for
   Search in Google Scholar for
 Related articles
Access Statistics
Email Alert *
Add to My List *
* Registration required (free)

  In this article
Materials and Me...
Conclusion and R...
Article Tables

 Article Access Statistics
    PDF Downloaded361    
    Comments [Add]    
    Cited by others 4    

Recommend this journal