1. Travellers to high altitude often complain of paroxysmal cough, which has not been previously investigated. We recorded overnight cough frequency and cough-receptor sensitivity to inhaled citric acid in a group of climbers travelling to 5300 m or higher.
2. Cough frequency, monitored in ten subjects, increased from a median of 0 coughs at sea level (range 0–1) to 5 coughs at 5000 m (range 0–13) and to over 60 coughs in subjects ascending to 7000 m. Citric acid cough threshold, measured in 42 subjects, was unchanged on arrival at 5300 m compared with sea level (geometric mean difference 1.26, 95% confidence intervals 0.84–1.89, P = 0.25), but was significantly reduced after 6 days, or more, at altitude compared with sea level (geometric mean difference 2.2, 95% confidence intervals 1.54–3.15, P = 0.0002). Cough threshold was not related to symptoms of acute mountain sickness, oxygen saturation, carbon dioxide tension or lung function.
3. These results indicate an increase in cough and cough-receptor sensitivity after some days at altitude. This may be due to respiratory tract damage from breathing cold dry air at increased ventilatory rates. Other explanations, such as sub-clinical pulmonary oedema or an effect on the cough centre of acclimatization to altitude, cannot be excluded.