BACKGROUND: Little is known of the language healthcare professionals use to describe cough sounds. We aimed to examine how they describe cough sounds and to assess whether these descriptions suggested they appreciate the basic sound qualities (as assessed by acoustic analysis) and the underlying diagnosis of the patient coughing. METHODS: 53 health professionals from two large respiratory tertiary referral centres were recruited; 22 doctors and 31 staff from professions allied to medicine. Participants listened to 9 sequences of spontaneous cough sounds from common respiratory diseases. For each cough they selected patient gender, the most appropriate descriptors and a diagnosis. Cluster analysis was performed to assess which cough sounds attracted similar descriptions. RESULTS: Gender was correctly identified in 93% of cases. The presence or absence of mucus was correct in 76.1% and wheeze in 39.3% of cases. However, identifying clinical diagnosis from cough was poor at 34.0%. Cluster analysis showed coughs with the same acoustics properties rather than the same diagnoses attracted the same descriptions. CONCLUSION: These results suggest that healthcare professionals can recognise some of the qualities of cough sounds but are poor at making diagnoses from them. It remains to be seen whether in the future cough sound acoustics will provide useful clinical information and whether their study will lead to the development of useful new outcome measures in cough monitoring.