Skip to main content

Chronic cough caused by choledochoduodenal fistula: a case report



Chronic cough is characterized by cough as the only or main symptom, with a duration of more than 8 weeks and no obvious abnormality in chest X-ray examination. Its etiology is complex, including respiratory disease, digestive system disease, circulation system disease, and psychological disease. Although a set of etiological diagnosis procedures for chronic cough have been established, it is still difficult to diagnose chronic cough and there are still some patients with misdiagnosis.

Case presentation

We present a case of a 54-year-old female patient who had chronic cough for 28 years. Physical examination had no positive signs and she denied any illness causing cough like tuberculosis, rhinitis. Recurrent clinic visits and symptomatic treatment didn’t improve the condition. Finally, gastroscopy identified the possible etiology of choledochoduodenal fistula that was proved by surgery. And after surgery, the patient's cough symptoms were significantly improved.


We report a rare case of chronic cough caused by choledochoduodenal fistula which demonstrates our as yet inadequate recognition of the etiology and pathogenesis. Written informed consent was obtained from the patient.

Peer Review reports


With the progress and in-depth understanding of the disease, the original unexplained chronic cough has its corresponding etiological diagnosis, such as cough variant asthma (CVA), eosinophilic bronchitis (EB), gastroesophageal reflux-induced cough (GERC), etc. [1]. In this paper, we share a case of chronic cough caused by choledochoduodenal fistula to enhance our understanding of the complexity of chronic cough.

Case presentation

A 54-year-old female was admitted to the hospital on December 2020 with the complaint of "recurrent cough for 28 years". This patient developed cough symptoms 28 years ago, without chest distress, shortness of breath, dyspnea, blocked or watery nose, sour regurgitation, belching. She visited the department of respiratory medicine for many years and showed positive bronchial challenge test in 2018 in First Affiliated Hospital of Zhejiang Chinese Medical University, diagnosed as non-severe asthma but the anti-asthmatic treatment had no effect as the patient's symptoms were still repeated. In April 2020 the patient visited the pulmonary specialist clinic in our hospital. She denied tuberculosis, rhinitis, chronic gastritis and gastric ulcer history or hypertension, diabetes but underwent open cholecystectomy 36 years ago and hysteromyomectomy 18 years ago. Physical examination showed no positive signs. Gastroscopy was performed in a local hospital about 1 years ago, and she denied there was some obvious abnormality in the gastroscopy report. In our department, blood tests and allergen were evaluated. The number of Eosinophils and the level of IgE were both normal. Chest CT scan was also ordered in our hospital. The CT scans showed small airway disease in both lungs and fibrous bands in the middle lobe of the right lung. Based on the results of previous and present examinations, the patient was diagnosed with cough variant asthma in April 2020, and treated with montelukast, budesonide formoterol inhaled powder and paracetamol and dihydrocodeine tartrate for about 8 months. The symptoms were relieved but relapsed after drug withdrawal especially of dihydrocodeine tartrate. Because the patient complained of severe coughing and nausea when taking a bus or car and occasional gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and acid reflux, the patient was empirically administered with a proton pump inhibitor and symptoms were improved. Therefore, gastroesophageal reflux was considered and the patient was recommended to receive gastroscopy that revealed a fistula in the duodenal bulb with massive bile outflow, and shallow ulcers can be seen around, no abnormality was observed in the descending duodenum (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1
figure 1

Gastroscope Examination. A Gastric pylorus showed massive bile adhesion. B Duodenal bulb mucosa is red and white, with patchy erosion, shallow ulcers and bile outflow

Then, she was admitted to gastrointestinal surgery. Abdominal enhanced CT showed gall bladder absence after cholecystectomy and pneumobilia. Magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography presented gall bladder absent, intra and extrahepatic bile duct dilatation. The common bile duct is locally adjacent to the descending duodenum, and appears to be connected, considering a choledochoduodenal fistula formed (Fig. 2). The general surgeon considered the patient with operation indications, and the patient was advised to undergo surgery. After the patient completed the cardiopulmonary function tests, excluded surgical contraindications, she received surgical treatment in December 2020. Choledochoduodenal fistula was verified during the operation, and distal gastrectomy + gastrojejunostomy Roux-en-Y reconstruction was performed. After surgery, the patient's cough symptoms were significantly improved.

Fig. 2
figure 2

Magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography presented a choledochoduodenal fistula possibly formed. The lesion is identified with a red arrow

Now she has been discharged from the hospital with good recovery and without recurring cough.


Chronic cough is a common but intractable disease affecting about 12% general population [2]. Questionnaire survey reports that cough prevalence in many European and American communities is 9–33%. In the United States, patients with chronic cough account for about 10–38% of respiratory outpatients [3]. Not only the number of people suffering from chronic cough but the cost of health resources is enormous. A variety of drugs have been used to treat cough, and inhaled steroids and cough syrups were considered more available. Sales of over counter cough syrup were estimated to be 92.5 million pounds in the UK and 328 million dollars in the US [4]. However, about 60% patients said their symptoms did not improve with any treatment [5].In addition to medications, repeated chest X-rays, chest CT, and bronchoscope have added to the patient's financial burden and greatly affected the patient's quality of life.

According to the etiology of chronic cough in China, cough variant asthma accounts for 32.6%, postnasal drip syndrome is 18.6%, eosinophilic bronchitis is 17.2%, and gastroesophageal reflux-induced chronic cough (GERC) only accounts for 4.6% [6]. However, in western countries, GERC’s proportion is 10–40% [1, 3]. Nowadays, more and more people believe that gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), except for postnasal drip syndrome and eosinophilic airway inflammation (asthma, non-asthmatic eosinophilic bronchitis), is one of the most common causes of chronic cough [7, 8].

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a gastrointestinal dysmotility disorder characterized by the reflux of stomach contents into the esophagus and mouth [9], caused corresponding symptoms like intra-esophageal symptoms (acid reflux, heartburn, chest pain) and extra-esophageal symptoms (cough, hoarseness, pharyngitis, etc.). Clinically, the reflux disease questionnaire (RDQ), gastroesophageal reflux disease questionnaire (GERDQ), gastroscope, and 24 h intraoesophageal pH monitoring are used to diagnose GERD [10].However, because the gastroscope and 24 h intraoesophageal pH monitoring are invasive examinations, and the complicated operation of 24 h intraoesophageal pH monitoring, the application of these diagnostics are limited, leading to misdiagnosis of chronic cough etiology to some extent.

Choledochoduodenal fistula (CDF) is a special type of biliary intestinal fistula, exists abnormal channel between the common bile duct and duodenum [11]. It occurs more common in female in China [12], and the risk of this illness is higher when a person has a history of disease of the biliary tract, abdominal pain, fever, jaundice that are prime symptoms of it [13], but some patients have vomiting, diarrhea, and other gastrointestinal manifestations as main symptoms. In this patient, there were no typical symptoms such as abdominal pain, fever, and jaundice, and acid reflux and heartburn were also not obvious. Through gastroscope and magnetic resonance examination, choledochoduodenal fistula was found and finally cured by surgery.

Chronic cough caused by gastroesophageal reflux (GER) can be divided into two subgroups according to the pH value: non-acid GERC and acid GERC respectively. Non-acid GERC is less common than acid GERC, and its diagnosis and treatment have not been standardized yet [14]. Studies have shown that non-acid GERC has similar cough characteristics and cough symptom score to acid GERC, however, has less reflux, heartburn, and lower GERDQ scores compared with acid GERC. Although non-acid GERC responded to standard anti-reflux therapy, cough remission was delayed [15]. This patient presented bile regurgitation under gastroscope, so as to the symptoms of reflux and heartburn were not obvious. It may be one of the reasons why gastroscope has not been performed for decades.

The potential molecular mechanism of non-acid GERC is not fully understood, but it is believed to be related to reflux theory, reflex theory, and airway hyperresponsiveness [14]. The reflux theory states that gastric contents can reflux to the pharynx due to the abnormal structure and function of the lower esophagus, which can be verified by pharyngeal reflux measurement, stimulating cough receptors to cause cough [16]. The reflex theory holds that reflux substances stimulate the esophageal mucosal receptors, activate the cough center to cause the bronchial cough reflex, which is called esophago-tracheo-bronchial reflex theory. In this process of reflection, substance P and other neuropeptides are produced, causing airway inflammation and activating neuropeptide receptors on mast cells, releasing histamine, prostaglandin E2, and other inflammatory mediators, eventually stimulating cough receptors and leading to cough [14]. Besides, in patients with gastroesophageal reflux induced chronic cough, cough threshold is decreased and cough sensitivity is increased [17]. All in all, direct stimulation by reflux or inflammatory mediators by reflex can lead to airway epithelial injury, chronic airway inflammation, and increased airway sensitivity [14]. This may be contributing to positive bronchial challenge in this patient.

In conclusion, the case of choledoduodenal fistula resulting in chronic cough was relatively infrequent. Our article provided a reference for diagnosis among our peers. Generally speaking, the etiology of chronic cough is complex. In addition to paying attention to the medical history and selecting corresponding examinations, the heterogeneity of the disease should be further understood to achieve a better treatment effect.

Availability of data and materials

All data generated or analysed during this study are included in this published article.



Cough variant asthma


Eosinophilic bronchitis


Gastroesophageal reflux-induced cough


Gastroesophageal reflux disease


Reflux disease questionnaire


Gastroesophageal reflux disease questionnaire


Choledochoduodenal fistula


  1. Morice AH, Kastelik JA. Cough 1: chronic cough in adults. Thorax. 2003;58:901–7.

    Article  CAS  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  2. Satia I, Badri H, Al-Sheklly B, Smith JA, Woodcock AA. Towards understanding and managing chronic cough. Clin Med (Lond). 2016;16:s92–7.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Chung KF, Pavord ID. Prevalence, pathogenesis, and causes of chronic cough. Lancet. 2008;371:1364–74.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  4. Morice AH. Epidemiology of cough. Pulm Pharmacol Ther. 2002;15:253–9.

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  5. Everett CF, Kastelik JA, Thompson RH, Morice AH. Chronic persistent cough in the community: a questionnaire survey. Cough. 2007;3:5.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  6. Lai K, Chen R, Lin J, Huang K, Shen H, Kong L, et al. A prospective, multicenter survey on causes of chronic cough in China. Chest. 2013;143:613–20.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  7. Kahrilas PJ, Smith JA, Dicpinigaitis PV. A causal relationship between cough and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) has been established: a pro/con debate. Lung. 2014;192:39–46.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  8. Irwin RS. Chronic cough due to gastroesophageal reflux disease: ACCP evidence-based clinical practice guidelines. Chest. 2006;129:80s–94s.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  9. Kellerman R, Kintanar T. Gastroesophageal reflux disease. Prim Care. 2017;44:561–73.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  10. Gyawali CP, Kahrilas PJ, Savarino E, Zerbib F, Mion F, Smout A, et al. Modern diagnosis of GERD: the Lyon Consensus. Gut. 2018;67:1351–62.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  11. Lin CT, Hsu KF, Yu JC, Chu HC, Hsieh CB, Fu CY, et al. Choledochoduodenal fistula caused by cholangiocarcinoma of the distal common bile duct. Endoscopy. 2009;41(Suppl 2):E319–20.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  12. Wu MB, Zhang WF, Zhang YL, Mu D, Gong JP. Choledochoduodenal fistula in Mainland China: a review of epidemiology, etiology, diagnosis and management. Ann Surg Treat Res. 2015;89:240–6.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  13. Bhaviya BS, Kar A, Dutta M, Mandal A, De Bakshi S. A case of choledochoduodenal fistula—an unusual case report. Clin Case Rep. 2017;5:1462–4.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Xu X, Yu L, Chen Q, Lv H, Qiu Z. Diagnosis and treatment of patients with nonacid gastroesophageal reflux-induced chronic cough. J Res Med Sci. 2015;20:885–92.

    Article  CAS  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  15. Xu X, Yang Z, Chen Q, Yu L, Liang S, Lü H, et al. Comparison of clinical characteristics of chronic cough due to non-acid and acid gastroesophageal reflux. Clin Respir J. 2015;9:196–202.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  16. Oelschlager BK, Quiroga E, Isch JA, Cuenca-Abente F. Gastroesophageal and pharyngeal reflux detection using impedance and 24-hour pH monitoring in asymptomatic subjects: defining the normal environment. J Gastrointest Surg. 2006;10:54–62.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  17. Qiu Z, Yu L, Xu S, Liu B, Zhao T, Lü H, et al. Cough reflex sensitivity and airway inflammation in patients with chronic cough due to non-acid gastro-oesophageal reflux. Respirology. 2011;16:645–52.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

Download references


Not applicable.


This work was financially supported by the National Key R&D Program of China [2017YFC1310604]. The funding body played no role in the design of the study and collection, analysis, and interpretation of data and in writing the manuscript.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



JF-C, LL collected clinical data, and LL prepared manuscript; HQ-H analysed clinical data, prepared manuscript and designed the work; JF-C, YH wrote the first draft of the manuscript. SJ-J, FC wrote sections of the manuscript and revised. JF-C, FC, YH, LL, HQ-H contributed to the clinical management of the patient. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Huaqiong Huang.

Ethics declarations

Ethics approval and consent to participate

The authors are accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved. All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and national research committee and with the Helsinki Declaration (as revised in 2013). Written informed consent was obtained from the patient.

Consent for publication

Written informed consent for publication of identifying images or other personal or clinical details was obtained from the patient.

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Open Access This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons licence, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article's Creative Commons licence, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article's Creative Commons licence and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this licence, visit The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver ( applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated in a credit line to the data.

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Cao, J., Hu, Y., Jin, S. et al. Chronic cough caused by choledochoduodenal fistula: a case report. BMC Pulm Med 21, 290 (2021).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • DOI: