Chronic non-productive cough

Chronic cough is defined by the BTS as a cough lasting longer than 8 weeks.

These guidelines are for those who have an isolated dry cough, a normal clinical examination, CXR and spirometry: there is a low frequency of serious pathology in these patients1.

These guidelines are based on those of the BTS2 , which suggests a “test of treatment” strategy.

Chronic cough lowers the cough threshold. This means even successful treatment trials can have a delayed effect.3


When to consider referral:

  • Those who have completed primary care management and whose cough is of significant impact to their daily lives and would like a referral to secondary care.
  • Those whom have red flag signs (see below)


Primary care management prior to referral:

  • Stop any ACE inhibitors. (Response can take up to 4 weeks)
  • Stop smoking
  • Perform a CXR and spirometry (within the past 6 months)
  • Most chronic cough is the result of the following pathologies. After a careful history and examination, a trial of treatment is appropriate:
    • Asthma: give inhaled steroids via spacer device (response can take up to 2 months) or oral steroids (response can take up to 2 weeks)
    • GORD: give a PPI and alginates. (Response can take up to 3 months)
    • Rhinosinitis: give a nasal steroid spray. (Response can take up to 3 months)4
  • If after the recommended review period, symptoms have not been resolved, then reconsider and treat as appropriate.
  • It is appropriate to consider secondary care review when all above therapeutic trials are complete.


Information required with referral:

  • Details of investigations done
  • Details of prior therapeutic trials, including length of use of medications. Referrals will be cancelled if therapeutic trials are not complete and of an appropriate period of time, unless other concerns are detailed.


Clinic options:

  • All referrals will be seen and assessed by the respiratory team


Red flags (for whom this guideline is not intended)

  • Those who have a copious sputum production
  • Those who have systemic symptoms
    • Fever
    • Sweats
    • Weight loss
  • Those with haemoptysis
  • Significant dyspnoea
  • Those with an abnormal X-ray or CT scan.


1.       Pavord ID, Chung KF; Management of chronic cough. Lancet. 2008 Apr 19;371(9621):1375-84.

2.       Morice AH, McGarvery L, Pavord I; Recommendations for the management of cough in adults, on behalf of the British Thoracic Society Cough Guideline Group Thorax 2006;61(Suppl I):i1–i24. doi: 10.1136/thx.2006.065144

3.       Gibson Peter G, Vertigan Anne E.  Management of chronic refractory cough BMJ 2015; 351 :h5590

4.       Fokkens, W.J., Lund, V.J., Mullol, J. et al. (2012) European Position Paper on Rhinosinusitis and Nasal Polyps 2012.Rhinology supplement 23(3)



Date reviewed                     28/02/2019

Next review due                  28/02/2020

Sifter name                          Dr Alex Burns



Version No. 1.1