Background: For evidence-based decision-making general practitioners need setting specific knowledge on the pre-test probabilities of underlying diseases and a symptom’s course. We performed a systematic review on symptom evaluating studies in primary care to give evidence on the prevalence, aetiologies and prognosis of coughing children who consult primary care settings.
Methods: Following a pre-defined algorithm and independent double reviewer ratings we searched MEDLINE and EMBASE. We included data from all quantitative original research articles in English, French or German assessing unselected study populations of children consulting for cough in primary care. We used the random effects model for meta-analysis in eligible subgroups if comprehensive in terms of heterogeneity.
Results: We identified 14 eligible studies on prevalence, five on aetiology and one on prognosis. Prevalence estimates varied between 4.7% and 23.3% of all reasons for encounter or up to estimates of 60% when related to patients or consultations. Cough in children is more frequent than in adults with lowest prevalences in adolescents and in summer. Acute cough is mostly caused by upper respiratory tract infections (62.4%) and bronchitis (33.3%); subacute or chronic cough by recurrent respiratory tract infection (27.7%), asthma (3% in cough of all durations to 50.4% in more than 3 weeks cough), and pertussis (37.2%). Potentially serious diseases like croup, pneumonia or tuberculosis are scarce. In children with subacute and chronic cough the total duration of cough ranged from 24 to 192 days. About 62.3% of children suffering from prolonged cough are still coughing two months after the beginning of symptoms. We found strong heterogeneity across studies and only five studies with an overall low risk of bias.
Conclusion: Cough is one of the most frequent reasons of encounter in primary care. Our findings on aetiologies and prognosis fit in with current guideline recommendations supporting a thoughtful wait-and-see approach in acute cough and a special awareness of asthma in chronic cough. There is a remarkable high pre-test probability of pertusssis in children with cough of more than two weeks’ duration. To develop primary-care cough guidelines symptom-evaluating studies assessing setting and age specific aetiologies and prognosis of cough are needed.