To help your child cope with a cough, know the common causes, what each one relates to, and treatments you can try at home. Here’s our guide to decoding coughs in kids.
A child’s cough can sound terrible and send most parents into panic mode, but it’s not usually a sign of a serious condition. It’s worth remembering that coughing is a healthy and important reflex that helps protect the airways in the throat and chest.
What causes coughs?
Coughs are usually a symptom of an infection, typically the common cold virus. Sometimes, babies develop more worrying coughs. These are:
- Croup, a viral infection of the voice box and airways.
- Whooping cough, a bacterial infection of the windpipe and airways. You will be offered a vaccination against whooping cough for your baby.
- Bronchiolitis, a viral infection of the lungs.
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Regurgitation of stomach contents and/or acid may trigger a reflex cough and should be considered when the more common causes of cough have been eliminated. This is more common in infants and young children. These young children and infants may not have obvious spitting up of liquids or solids during such episodes; however, they become very distressed during such events.
- Irritation of the airways. Pollution, primary or secondhand smoke, and an allergen may also produce a persisting cough.
- Asthma – this can be difficult to diagnose, because symptoms vary from child to child. But a wheezing cough, which may get worse at night, is one of many asthma symptoms. The other may be a cough that is caused by increased physical activity or during play. Treatment for asthma depends on what’s causing it, and may include avoiding triggers like pollution, smoke, or perfumes. Consult your doctor if you think your child has asthma symptoms.
- Allergies/Sinusitis can cause a lingering cough, as well as an itchy throat, runny nose, watery eyes, sore throat, or rash. Talk to your child’s doctor about allergy tests to find out which allergens cause the problem, and ask for advice on how to avoid that allergen. Allergens can include food, pollen, pet fur, and dust.
Different types of coughs
Knowing and recognising the different types of coughs will help you know how to take care of them and when to go to the doctor.
According to paediatrician and neonatologist Dr Emma Buckley:
- A dry cough is a cough that does not produce any phlegm, is irritating to the lungs and throat and it may be a sign of a viral infection or cold. These coughs usually last about seven days and if the child is otherwise well, they do not require treatment.
- A wet cough is a cough that produces phlegm, and depending on the colour, may indicate a bacterial infection. Phlegm that is yellow green or brown usually means that a child has a chest infection or pneumonia. They will usually have a loss of appetite and a temperature.
- A sudden cough can be an indication of choking on a foreignbody.
- A cough with a wheezy sound could be a sign of bronchiolitis a viral infection that affects infants or asthma in an older child.
- A ‘barking’ cough is usually found in children, and may be associated with croup or other viral illness.
- Croup usually comes on quite suddenly especially in the middle of the night. A cough that causes a ‘whooping’ sound after the cough may be indicative of a serious infection and should be evaluated by a doctor.
You can help your baby by doing the following:
- Make sure he gets plenty of rest.
- Offer extra breastfeeds or bottle feeds. Your baby will need plenty of fluids to fight off the infection.
- Give the correct dose of infant paracetamol or infant ibuprofen. These painkillers will help to bring down your baby’s fever.
- Breathing in steam may help to relieve your baby’s cough. Try sitting with your baby in the bathroom with the shower on. The warm, steamy air will help to relax his airways. Take care to keep your baby away from the hot water, otherwise he could get burnt.
The Irish Medicines Board (IMB) has recommended that over-the-counter cough and cold medicines should not be given to children who are under the age of six. Instead, give your child a warm drink of lemon and honey or a simple cough syrup that contains glycerol or honey. However, honey shouldn’t be given to babies under the age of one, due to the risk of infant botulism.
Preventing baby from getting coughs and colds
Breastfeeding is a great way to protect your baby’s health. It passes your antibodies, chemicals in your blood that fight infections, to your baby. Breastfed babies are better at fending off colds and other infections. You can also protect your baby by trying to keep him away from anyone with a cough or a cold. Or ask them to wash their hands thoroughly before holding your baby. If you or your partner smokes, try to quit, and don’t take your baby to areas where people are smoking. Babies who live with smokers have more colds, and their colds last longer than babies who aren’t exposed to smoke.
A baby or young child should be seen by a doctor for their cough if:
- They are less than six months and have a temperature more than 38°C as young babies can become unwell very quickly.
- If their rate of breathing is increased this indicates that they are unwell and struggling to breathe.
- If they are having spasms of coughing or seem breathless.
- If they have any change in their colour especially duskiness /blue tinge around mouth.
- If they have a rash, irritability, or are very quiet and listless.
- If they are vomiting with the cough and unable to keep fluids down if they are coughing up yellow green or brown phlegm.
Paediatrician and Neonatologist, Dr Emma Buckley – The Children’s Practice
More like this:
Treating vomiting in children
How to prevent whooping cough
Treating baby’s cold