A cough is one of the most common symptoms of childhood illness and is sometimes difficult to treat, often disturbing sleep and everyday functioning.
Although a cough can sound awful, it’s not usually a sign of a serious condition. In fact, coughing is a healthy and important reflex that helps protect the airways in the throat and chest. But sometimes, your child’s coughs will warrant a trip to the doctor. Understanding what different types of coughs could mean will help you know how to take care of them and when to go to the doctor.
1.Wet and productive
What does it mean? Mucus runs down the back of the throat at night (known as a postnasal drip), and most likely there is a runny nose to contend with too
The likely cause is: An infection (such as a cold, sinusitis, or pneumonia), or allergies.
How to treat? Use saline nose drops, and offer lots of fluids to help thin the mucus. Dairy products (milk, yoghurts, etc) can often thicken the mucus, so should be limited where possible, although young babies under one will still need milk for their daily nutrient intake. If your child has a fever along with the cough, call the doctor to rule out a more serious infection.
2. Dry and raspy
What does it mean? There is irritation somewhere within your child’s airways
The likely cause is: An infection, allergen, or other irritant, such as dust, pollen, or smoke, that produces little or no mucus.
How to treat? Soothe it as you would a wet cough, with nose drops and lots of fluids. If you suspect the cough is allergy-related, do your best to limit your child’s exposure and wait it out. Speak to your doctor if you are concerned.
3. Sounding like a barking seal or dog
What does it mean? Your child’s airways are constricted and/or inflamed.
The likely cause is: Croup, a viral infection that’s usually worse during the night.
How to treat? Sit with your little one on your knee in a steamy bathroom for 15-20 minutes, or go outside in the fresh air if it’s cool (not cold). If she’s having significant trouble breathing, go to hospital for treatment.
4. Accompanied by wheezing
What does it mean? Your child has mucus to clear out of her airways, or she’s got postnasal drip.
The likely cause is: Asthma or bronchiolitis, an infection of the lungs’ small airways that’s usually seen in children under three years of age.
How to treat? See the doctor to find out exactly what’s going on. If your child has asthma, medication may need tweaking. If it is an infection, there may be a need for antibiotics.
5. A severe coughing followed by a ‘whoop’
What does it mean? Your child is literally coughing all the air out of her lungs, then taking in a deep breath.
The likely cause is: Whooping cough, a bacterial infection known as pertussis.
How to treat? Call the doctor at once. Antibiotics may be prescribed to make your child less contagious, but these won’t treat the cough or shorten its duration. This can be a dangerous infection in babies, which is why staying on top of the pertussis shot is so important.
When to call the doctor
Most childhood coughs are nothing to be worried about. However, call your doctor if your child:
- has trouble breathing or is working hard to breathe
- is breathing more quickly than usual
- has a blue or dusky colour to the lips, face or tongue
- has a high fever (especially if your child is coughing but does NOT have a runny or stuffy nose)
- has any fever and is less than three months old
- is an infant (three months old or younger) who has been coughing for more than a few hours
- makes a ‘whooping’ sound when breathing in after coughing
- is coughing up blood
- has stridor (a noisy or musical sound) when breathing in
- has wheezing when breathing out (unless you already have a home asthma care plan from your doctor)
- is weak, cranky or irritable
- is dehydrated
What your doctor will do
One of the best ways to diagnose a cough is by listening. Knowing what the cough sounds like will help your doctor decide how to treat your child. The treatment for different types of coughs can vary, based on the cause.
As most coughs are caused by viruses, doctors usually do not give antibiotics for a cough. A cough caused by a virus just needs to run its course. A viral infection can last for as long as two weeks.
Unless a cough won’t let your child sleep, cough medicines are not needed. They might help a child stop coughing, but they do not treat the cause of the cough. If you do choose to use an over-the-counter (OTC) cough medicine, speak to your pharmacist to be sure of the correct dose and to make sure it’s safe for your child.
Night-time cough: Lots of coughs get worse at night. When your child has a cold, the mucus from the nose and sinuses can drain down the throat and trigger a cough during sleep. This is only a problem if the cough won’t let your child sleep. Asthma also can trigger night-time coughs because the airways tend to be more sensitive and irritable at night.
Daytime cough: Cold air or activity can make coughs worse during the daytime. Try to make sure that nothing in your house — like air freshener, pets, or smoke (especially tobacco smoke) — is making your child cough.
Cough with a fever: A child who has a cough, mild fever, and runny nose probably has a common cold. But coughs with a fever of 39°C (102° F) or higher can sometimes be due to pneumonia, especially if a child is weak and breathing fast. In this case, call your doctor immediately.
Cough with vomiting: Kids often cough so much that it triggers their gag reflex, making them vomit. Also, a child who has a cough with a cold or an asthma flare-up might throw up if lots of mucus drains into the stomach and causes nausea. Usually, this is not cause for alarm unless the vomiting doesn’t stop.
For children one year and older, you can give a teaspoon of honey, as needed. It thins secretions and loosens the cough.
Help your child drink plenty of fluids. Staying well hydrated thins the mucus, making it easier to cough and blow the nose.
Prop up the head of your child’s cot or bed to help reduce night-time coughing. A quick and effective ay to do this is by putting a pillow under the head of the mattress which will raise your child slightly, and won’t move around and dislodge during the night.