BACKGROUND: Gastroesophageal reflux (GER) is a common cause of chronic cough. Moreover, chronic cough can be the sole presenting manifestation of GER disease (GERD). It has been suggested recently that GER most often causes chronic cough by stimulating the distal esophagus. To gain further diagnostic and pathophysiologic knowledge, we prospectively evaluated a group of patients with chronic cough likely to be due to GER with extensive gastrointestinal and respiratory studies and then observed their response to antireflux therapy. METHODS: We prospectively characterized 12 subjects whose chronic cough was likely to be due to GER by chest radiographs, barium esophagography, 24-h esophageal pH monitoring (EPM) with probes in the distal and proximal esophagus, esophagoscopy, and bronchoscopy. Then, prior to instituting antireflux therapy, we objectively counted coughs during the distal esophageal infusion of 0.1 N HCl or 0.9 percent saline solution administered in a randomized, double-blind, standardized fashion (ie, Bernstein acid-perfusion test). RESULTS: Gastroesophageal reflux was determined to cause cough in all subjects based on disappearance of cough with antireflux therapy. It was clinically "silent" in 75 percent. The EPM was the test most frequently abnormal (sensitivity, 92 percent). Distal esophageal data revealed that 10 of 12 subjects had GER-induced coughs (12 +/- 12) while only 7 of 12 had an abnormal esophageal pH conventional parameter (eg, percent time pH < 4). Compared with the distal esophagus, GER to the proximal esophagus occurred (p = 0.017) and induced cough (p = 0.004) less often. Compared with baseline (9.3 +/- 17.6), there were no differences in coughs induced by the infusion of saline solution (9.2 +/- 15.9) or acid (15.1 +/- 26.7); the number of coughs induced by acid was negatively correlated with distal esophageal acid-GER events during EPM (r = -0.64, p = 0.01). Neither bronchoscopy nor chest radiographs were consistent with aspiration. CONCLUSIONS: There is a clinical profile that prospectively predicts which patients have chronic cough due to GER. The cough was most likely due to stimulation of the distal esophagus, not aspiration. Intraesophageal acid is unlikely to be the sole mediator in gastric juice causing the cough. While EPM is the single most helpful diagnostic test, conventionally utilized diagnostic indices of GERD can be misleadingly normal; observing GER-induced coughs is more frequently helpful.