Approach to Acute Cough in Adults

Approach to Acute Cough in Adults

Cough is one of the most common complaints presenting to any emergency physician or primary care practitioner – whether it is the chief complaint or an associated symptom. An acute cough is one that has been present for less than three weeks. In the era of COVID-19, a patient presenting with an acute cough can be alarming and scary. So, now more than ever, it is important to develop a strong diagnostic approach to the acute cough, which is largely a clinical diagnosis.

Differential Diagnosis of Acute Cough

*Indicates the most common causes of acute cough.
Cause Example Symptoms / warning signs
Infectious (viral/bacterial) Upper respiratory tract infection aka common cold* Rhinorrhea, nasal obstruction, sneezing, scratchy/sore throat, malaise, headache, and no signs of consolidation
Acute bronchitis* Recent upper respiratory tract infection, and absence of COPD, and absence of high fever or other systemic signs
Influenza Fever, sore throat, nasal congestion, myalgia, headache, and no signs of consolidation
Pneumonia* Fever, tachycardia, tachypnea, consolidation signs on respiratory exam, and mental status change in patients >75y old
Pertussis Whooping cough and cough-emesis
COVID-19 Fever, non-productive cough, fatigue, dyspnea, and/or other less common symptoms such as sore throat, diarrhea, headache, skin rash, and anosmia
Post-nasal drip aka upper airway cough syndrome Post-nasal drainage sensation, need to clear throat, and rhinorrhea

Allergic rhinitis aka hay fever Itching and watering of eyes, rhinorrhea, pruritis
Exacerbation of a pre-existing chronic disease Exacerbation of Asthma   History of episodic wheezing, non-productive cough, dyspnea, reversible air-flow obstruction, allergen exposure or triggered by exercise
Exacerbation of COPD Smoking history, dyspnea, signs of obstruction on respiratory exam i.e. decreased breath sounds, and irreversible air-flow obstruction
Exacerbation of CHF Dyspnea, orthopnea, peripheral edema, gallop rhythm on cardiac exam, and elevated JVP
Drug-induced ACE inhibitor use Non-productive cough, tickling or scratchy sensation in throat typically arising within 1 week of starting medication
Gastroesophageal reflux disorder (GERD)

 

Heartburn, regurgitation, dysphagia, and cough is more prominent at night
Other pulmonary causes Pulmonary embolism Clinical signs and symptoms of DVT, dyspnea, tachypnea, tachycardia, pleuritic chest pain, immobilization for 3 or more days, surgery in the past 4 weeks, history of DVT/PE, hemoptysis, and malignancy with active treatment in the past 6 months
Lung cancer Smoking history, new change in cough, hemoptysis, dyspnea, night sweats, weight loss, and signs of focal obstruction on respiratory exam i.e. decreased breath sounds
Foreign body aspiration Dyspnea, inspiratory stridor, choking, and elevated risk in children
Acute inhalation injury History of exposure to smoke (e.g. in firefighters, thermal burn victims) or chemicals (e.g. chlorine, ammonia)
Bronchiectasis Large volumes of purulent sputum, dyspnea, wheezing, and chest pain
Interstitial lung disease Non-productive cough, dyspnea, fatigue, weight loss
         

Picture the scene: A 23-year-old female presents to the emergency department with a cough that has been ongoing for one week. What are your next steps?

History

  1. Confirm the duration and timing of cough
  2. Nature of cough, i.e. whooping, hemoptysis, and productive vs non-productive?
  3. Presence of the following associated symptoms: fever, dyspnea, sore throat, headache, chest pain, heartburn, rhinorrhea, facial pressure/pain, nasal congestion, or weight loss
  4. History of any chronic lung disease (i.e. asthma, COPD), allergies, CHF, or immunosuppression?
  5. Smoking history?
  6. Medication history, i.e. ACE inhibitor use?

Physical Exam

  1. Vitals
  2. HEENT exam (head, eyes, ears, nose, and throat)
  3. Respiratory exam
  4. Cardiac exam, including JVP

Laboratory Tests

  • Send for COVID-19 swab according to your hospital’s guidelines
  • Order CBC if suspecting infection
  • Order ABG if dyspnea present or life-threatening cause of acute cough suspected
  • Order sputum culture if suspecting bacterial pneumonia
  • Spirometry if need to differentiate between obstructive lung disease (e.g., asthma, COPD) and restrictive lung disease (e.g., interstitial lung disease)

Imaging

  • Consider starting with a Chest X-ray if red flags for serious pathology are present >> dyspnea, hemoptysis, chest pain, weight loss, immunosuppression, significant smoking history, elderly or at risk of aspiration, tachypnea or hypoxemia, abnormal cardiac or respiratory exam, or sepsis.
  • If suspecting foreign body aspiration, need to order bronchoscopy 

Please note that treatment of the conditions that may cause acute cough are not discussed in this blog post, but can be found through medical resources such as those in the references section. Treatment for acute cough often requires treating the underlying cause.

References

  1. Boujaoude ZC, Pratter MR. Clinical approach to acute cough. Lung. 2010;188 Suppl 1(Suppl 1):S41-S46. doi:10.1007/s00408-009-9170-6
  2. Holzinger F, Beck S, Dini L, Stöter C, Heintze C. The diagnosis and treatment of acute cough in adults. Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2014;111(20):356-363. doi:10.3238/arztebl.2014.0356
  3. Madison JM, Irwin RS. Cough: A worldwide problem. Otolarynogol Clin North Am. 2010 Feb;43(1):1-13, vii.
  4. Strong Medicine. An Approach to Cough. Published 25 March, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LDMEtNXik-A
  5. University of Toronto. Cough and Dyspnea. 2015. http://thehub.utoronto.ca/family/cough-and-dyspnea/ Accessed 17 August, 2020.

 

Cite this article as: Sheza Qayyum, Canada, "Approach to Acute Cough in Adults," in International Emergency Medicine Education Project, November 4, 2020, https://iem-student.org/2020/11/04/approach-to-acute-cough-in-adults/, date accessed: May 9, 2021

Triads in Medicine – Rapid Review for Medical Students

triads in medicine

One of the most convenient ways of learning and remembering the main components of disease and identifying a medical condition on an exam are Triads, and medical students/interns/residents swear by them.

Be it a question during rounds, a multiple-choice exam question to be solved, or even in medical practice, the famous triads help physicians recall important characteristics and clinical features of a disease or treatment in an instant.

Since exam season is here, this could serve as a rapid review to recall the most common medical conditions.

While there are a vast number of triads/pentads available online, I have listed the most important (high-yy) ones that every student would be asked about at least once in the duration of their course.

1) Lethal Triad also known as The Trauma Triad of Death
Hypothermia + Coagulopathy + Metabolic Acidosis

2) Beck’s Triad of Cardiac Tamponade
Muffled heart sounds + Distended neck veins + Hypotension

3) Virchow’s Triad – Venous Thrombosis
Hypercoagulability + stasis + endothelial damage

4) Charcot’s Triad – Ascending Cholangitis
Fever with rigors + Right upper quadrant pain + Jaundice

5) Cushing’s Triad – Raised Intracranial Pressure
Bradycardia + Irregular respiration + Hypertension

6) Triad of Ruptured Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm
Severe Abdominal/Back Pain + Hypotension + Pulsatile Abdominal mass

7) Reactive Arthritis
Can’t See (Conjunctivitis) + Can’t Pee (Urethritis) + Can’t Climb a Tree (Arthritis)

8) Triad of Opioid Overdose
Pinpoint pupils + Respiratory Depression + CNS Depression

9) Hakims Triad – Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus
Gait Disturbance + Dementia + Urinary Incontinence

10) Horner’s Syndrome Triad
Ptosis + Miosis + Anydrosis

11) Mackler’s Triad – Oesophageal Perforation (Boerhaave Syndrome)
Vomiting + Lower Thoracic Pain + Subcutaneous Emphysema

12) Pheochromocytoma
Palpitations + Headache + Perspiration (Diaphoresis)

13) Leriche Syndrome
Buttock claudication + Impotence + Symmetrical Atrophy of bilateral lower extremities

14) Rigler’s Triad – Gallstone ileus
Gallstones + Pneumobilia + Small bowel obstruction

15) Whipple’s Triad – Insulinoma
Hypoglycemic attack + Low glucose + Resolving of the attack on glucose administration

16) Meniere’s Disease
Tinnitus + Vertigo + Hearing loss

17) Wernicke’s Encephalopathy- Thiamine Deficiency
Confusion + Ophthalmoplegia + Ataxia

18) Unhappy Triad – Knee Injury
Injury to Anterior Cruciate Ligament + Medial collateral ligament + Medial or Lateral Meniscus

19) Henoch Schonlein Purpura
Purpura + Abdominal pain + Joint pain

20) Meigs Syndrome
Benign ovarian tumor + pleural effusion + ascites

21) Felty’s Syndrome
Rheumatoid Arthritis + Splenomegaly + Neutropenia

22) Cauda Equina Syndrome
Low back pain + Bowel/Bladder Dysfunction + Saddle Anesthesia

23) Meningitis
Fever + Headache + Neck Stiffness

24) Wolf Parkinson White Syndrome
Delta Waves + Short PR Interval + Wide QRS Complex

25) Neurogenic Shock
Bradycardia + Hypotension + Hypothermia

Further Reading

Cite this article as: Sumaiya Hafiz, UAE, "Triads in Medicine – Rapid Review for Medical Students," in International Emergency Medicine Education Project, June 12, 2020, https://iem-student.org/2020/06/12/triads-in-medicine/, date accessed: May 9, 2021

How to make the most of your EM Clerkship

How to make the most of your EM Clerkship

Emergency Medicine has something for everyone!

Starting the Emergency Medicine (EM) Clerkship is one of the most exciting times of any medical student’s life, regardless of whichever specialty they plan on specializing in because EM has something for everyone. It is like solving all those questions that begin with ‘A patient presents to the Emergency Department with…’ but in reality, at a faster pace and with more tricky situations. This can make students feel overwhelmed, as they find themselves juggling between books and resources as to which one to follow or which topics to learn, and I am here for just that! To share the approach that helps many students get the hang of EM and make the most of their time in one of the best learning environments of any hospital.

Prepare a list of common conditions

The basic approach would be first to jot down all the problems you can think of.

Here is a list to help you get started: Core EM Clerkship Topics

There are problems that you may be heard a lot such as Chest Pain, Heart Failure, Shock (and it’s types), Acute Coronary Syndrome, Sepsis, Pulmonary edema, Respiratory Failure, Coma, Stroke, Hypoglycemia, Subarachnoid Hemorrhage, Fractures, Head Trauma, Status Epilepticus, Diabetic Ketoacidosis, and Anaphylaxis.

As every doctor you meet will always say, common is common, so always focus on things that you have heard and seen most about, read about them, make notes on their clinical features, differentials, investigations and management. Most importantly, do not forget to read about the ABCDE approach in every critically ill and trauma patient.

Brush up on your history taking and examination skills

Know what to ask and when to ask. Patients in the ED are not in their most comfortable composure, so try to practice and frame questions that provide you with just enough information to make a diagnosis in the least possible time.
The same goes for examination, never forget the basics of examination and their importance. Practice examination as much as you can and you will automatically see it come to you naturally at a faster pace. Also, do not forget focused history and physical examination is a cornerstone of EM practice and saves a lot of time.
Where investigations can help you exclude a differential, 80% of your diagnosis will be built from what you ask, what you see and what you feel. Keep in mind that if you are not thinking or looking for something, you will not see and find it. So, be suspicious of life, organ and limb-threatening problems.

Read about common ED procedures

ABG, Intubation, Central Lines, FAST Scan, Suturing, Catheter and Cannula placement are some of them. As a medical student, you will probably not be required to perform any, but it is good to have an idea about the procedures when you see them. If you can practice, then that is even better, ask a resident or intern to show you how and you can have a go yourself under their supervision! Remember, “see one, do one, teach one.”

Watch videos on examination, interpreting X-rays, & procedural skills

Youtube is an asset when it comes to medical education, make good use of it. There are also plenty of videos on the iEM website that you can watch and learn from.

Interpretation of ECG & X-rays

Google is your best friend for this! You have the list of common conditions, all you need to do is a google search on the most common ECG findings and x-rays in medical emergencies and you will be good to go. You can also always learn these from the doctors around you in the ED, as the more you see and try to interpret, the better you get at differentiating the normal from abnormal.

Books

Before the rotation

Before the rotation, read a review book, recall your basic knowledge from internal medicine/family medicine and surgery because EM almost covers all of the acute problems of those fields. Moreover, do not forget, EM is an independent specialty and has its’ own textbooks.

iEM Clerkship book is a very good source to get started with! Download Now! – iEM Book (iBook and pdf)

If you are the kind, who likes solving questions, the Pretest Emergency Medicine is a great source.

During the rotation

During the rotation – Learning what you see is the best way to keep things in your long term memory. After your shift ends, and you go home, get some rest, recall the cases of the day and read about them on Up to Date/ Medscape or any resource that you prefer, this will help you relate what you saw with what you are reading and will help you recall it better later on.

These are just a few tips to help in making the most of your EM rotation. Remember to study hard, but also practice, brush up on your communication skills, talk to patients, be there for them. The EM Clerkship prepares you for life as a doctor, as you practice every aspect of medicine during this time and learn to answer questions about acute medical problems and their severity when asked by those around you.

Cite this article as: Sumaiya Hafiz, UAE, "How to make the most of your EM Clerkship," in International Emergency Medicine Education Project, October 4, 2019, https://iem-student.org/2019/10/04/how-to-make-the-most-of-your-em-clerkship/, date accessed: May 9, 2021

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Emergency Medicine Clerkship: Things to Know selected from SAEM and IFEM undergraduate curriculum recommendations are uploaded into the website. More specific disease entities are on the way.

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