BACKGROUND: Respiratory symptoms such as cough and wheeze are associated with significant morbidity, including school absenteeism. METHODS: A respiratory questionnaire was sent to the parents of all 5727 children aged 7-9 years of age registered with 95 general practitioners in the Southampton area to determine (a) the prevalence of asthma, cough and wheeze, (b) the effects of respiratory symptoms on school absenteeism, and (c) the use of anti-asthma medication. RESULTS: A total of 4830 parents replied (response rate 86%). The 12 month prevalence of wheeze in the absence of cough was 5.5%, cough in the absence of wheeze was 10.0%, and 7.6% reported cough and wheeze; 15.2% of children had been diagnosed. Of the 4830 who replied, 12.7% were receiving bronchodilators, 0.6% xanthine derivatives, 1.7% sodium cromoglycate, and 4.1% inhaled corticosteroids. In all, 348 (7.2%) children had missed more than five days of schooling in the preceding year for respiratory symptoms, while 43 children (0.9%) had missed more than 20 days of schooling in the preceding year. Of the children who had missed more than five days of schooling, 43% reported cough and wheeze, 33% cough alone, and 16% wheeze alone in the preceding year. Compared with children who coughed, those who wheezed were significantly more likely to be diagnosed as asthmatic and to be receiving bronchodilators or inhaled corticosteroids. CONCLUSIONS: In this study, cough was the most frequently reported symptom amongst children missing more than five days of schooling per year.
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