Navigating Chronic Cough in Primary Care

Chronic cough took center stage at the European Respiratory Society (ERS) Congress session titled “Conditions We Are Just Dealing With the Tip of the Iceberg in Primary Care: Frequently Mismanaged Conditions in Primary Health Care.”

“When it comes to chronic cough, general practitioners (GPs) often feel lost,” Miguel Román Rodríguez, family doctor and an associate professor of family medicine at the University of the Balearic Islands School of Medicine, Palma, Mallorca, Spain, and one of the chairs of the session, said to Medscape.

“GPs are central in diagnosing conditions like chronic cough. We bring something that the specialists don’t bring: the knowledge of the context, of the family, the longitudinal history,” echoed the second chair of the session, Hilary Pinnock, family physician and professor of primary care respiratory medicine at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.

Understanding the Multifaceted Nature of Chronic Cough

Imran Satia, an assistant professor at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, guided attendees at the Milan, Italy, meeting through a comprehensive exploration of chronic cough. The first issue he addressed was the definition of the condition, emphasizing that it is defined by its duration, with chronic cough typically lasting for more than 8 weeks. Satia pointed out common associations of chronic cough, including asthma, nasal disease, and reflux disease.

Delving into epidemiology, he cited a meta-analysis indicating a global prevalence of approximately 10% in the adult population, with significant regional variability: from 18.1% in Australia to 2.3% in Africa. Notably, the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging (CLSA) found an overall prevalence of 16% at baseline. “The most common risk factor was smoke, but even in nonsmokers the prevalence reached 10%,” Satia added, highlighting that it increased with age and changed depending on location. “The most common associated comorbidities were heart failure and hypertension, but also conditions related to chronic pain, mood, and anxiety,” he explained.

Mental health was identified as a crucial factor in chronic cough, with psychological distress and depressive symptoms emerging as risk factors for developing chronic cough over the next 3 years, contributing to a 20% increased risk.

Effective Management Strategies

Satia proposed the use of algorithms to aid in the management of patients with chronic cough in primary care. He introduced a Canadian algorithm that offers specific recommendations for both primary and secondary care.

The algorithm’s primary care assessment, step 1, includes a comprehensive evaluation of the cough history (duration, severity, triggers, nature, location); cardiorespiratory, gastrointestinal, and nasal symptoms, and use of angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors and smoking status. Essential diagnostic tests, such as chest radiography (to check for structural disease), complete blood cell count, and spirometry (with or without bronchodilator reversibility), were emphasized. Urgent referral criteria encompassed symptoms like hemoptysis, weight loss, fever, or abnormal chest radiography findings.

“When checking for cough history, GPs should always consider factors like the presence of dry or productive cough, mental health, presence of chronic pain, stroke, and swallowing,” said Satia, stressing the importance of documenting the impact of chronic cough on quality of life, work life, social life, and family life. “This is something that doctors sometimes do not ask about. They may think that these are not major problems, but acknowledging their importance can help the patient,” he added.

Step 2 of the algorithm focuses on treatment options tailored to specific diagnoses, such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Satia urged caution, emphasizing that treatment should only be initiated when evidence of these conditions is present. Additionally, he encouraged early consideration of cough hypersensitivity syndrome when patients exhibit coughing in response to low levels of mechanical stimulation.

Current Treatments and Future Prospects

Satia presented an overview of existing treatments for chronic cough, outlining their respective advantages and disadvantages. For instance, speech therapy is a patient-led approach with no side effects but entails challenges related to access, costs, and patient motivation. On the other hand, low-dose morphine offers rapid relief but is associated with issues like nausea, stigma, and constipation.

Looking ahead, Satia shared the results of COUGH-1 and COUGH-2, pivotal phase 3 trials evaluating the oral, peripherally acting P2X3-receptor antagonist gefapixant. This drug, currently approved in Switzerland and Japan, demonstrated a significant reduction in cough frequency compared with placebo, with rapid and sustained effects. “The estimated relative reduction for 45 mg was 18.45% in COUGH-1 (12 weeks) and 14.64% in COUGH-2 (24 weeks). Of note, cough reduction is very quick and sustained with gefapixant, but a 40% reduction is observed in the placebo arm,” commented Satia.

Experts unanimously stressed the importance for specialists and GPs of effective communication in managing chronic cough, involving both patients and their families.

“As GPs, we are crucial to manage the common problems, but we are also crucial to spot the needle in the haystack: this is extremely difficult and challenging, and we need support from our colleagues,” Pinnock concluded.

Satia reported funding from Merck MSD, AstraZeneca, and GSK; consulting fees from Merck MSD, Genentech, and Respiplus; and speaker fees from AstraZeneca, GSK, and Merck MSD.

ERS International Congress 2023; September 9-13, 2023; Milan, Italy.

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