Coughs are one of the most common symptoms of childhood illness. A cough can sound awful, but 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, a cough calls for a trip to the doctor. Understanding what different types of cough could mean will help you know how to take care of them and when to go to the doctor.
Barky coughs are usually caused by a swelling in the upper part of the airway. Most of the time, a barky cough comes from croup, a swelling of the larynx (voice box) and trachea (windpipe).
Croup usually is due to a virus, but also can come from allergies or a change in temperature at night. Younger children have smaller airways that, if swollen, can make it hard to breathe. Kids younger than 3 are most at risk for croup because their airways are so narrow.
A cough from croup can start suddenly, often in the middle of the night. Most kids with croup will also have stridor, which is a noisy, harsh breathing (often described as a coarse, musical sound) that happens when the child inhales (breathes in).
Whooping cough is another name for pertussis, an infection of the airways caused by the bacteria Bordetella pertussis. Kids with pertussis will have spells of back-to-back coughs without breathing in between. At the end of the coughing, they'll take a deep breath in that makes a "whooping" sound. Other symptoms of pertussis are a runny nose, sneezing, mild cough, and a low-grade fever.
Although pertussis can happen at any age, it's most severe in infants under 1 year old who did not get the pertussis vaccine. Pertussis is very contagious, so your child should get the pertussis shot at 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, 15 months, and 4-6 years of age. This shot is given as part of the DTaP vaccine (diphtheria, tetanus, acellular pertussis).
The Tdap vaccine (which is similar to DTaP but with lower concentrations of diphtheria and tetanus toxoid for adults) is a booster shot given to children at 11-12 years and once again in adulthood as a part of one of the tetanus boosters. The Tdap vaccine is also recommended for all pregnant women during the second half of each pregnancy, regardless of whether or not they had the vaccine before, or when it was last given.
Adults are encouraged to receive the pertussis vaccine since immunity to pertussis lessens over time. By protecting yourself against pertussis, you are also protecting your kids from getting it.
Pertussis is very contagious, and can spread from person to person through tiny drops of fluid in the air coming from the nose or mouth when people sneeze, cough, or laugh. Others can become infected by inhaling the drops or getting the drops on their hands and then touching their mouths or noses.
If your child makes a wheezing (whistling) sound when breathing out (exhaling), this could mean that the lower airways in the lungs are swollen. This can happen with asthma or with the viral infection bronchiolitis. Wheezing also can happen if the lower airway is blocked by a foreign object.
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 nighttime coughs because the airways tend to be more sensitive and irritable at night.
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.
A child who has a cough, mild fever, and runny nose probably has a common cold. But coughs with a fever of 102ºF (39ºC) or higher can sometimes be due to pneumonia, especially if a child is weak and breathing fast. In this case, call your doctor immediately.
Kids often cough so much that it triggers their gag reflex, making them throw up. Also, a child who has a cough with a cold or an asthma flare-up might vomit if lots of mucus drains into the stomach and causes nausea. Usually, this is not cause for alarm unless the vomiting doesn't stop.
Coughs caused by colds due to viruses can last weeks, especially if a child has one cold right after another. Asthma, allergies, or a chronic infection in the sinuses or airways also might cause persistent coughs. If the cough lasts for 3 weeks, call your doctor.
Most childhood coughs are nothing to be worried about. However, call the doctor if your child:
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.
Because 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 2 weeks.
Unless a cough won't let your child sleep, cough medicines are not needed. They might help a child stop coughing, but do not treat the cause of the cough. If you do choose to use an over-the-counter (OTC) cough medicine, call the doctor to be sure of the correct dose and to make sure it's safe for your child.
Do not use OTC combination medicines like "Tylenol Cold" — they have more than one medicine in them, and kids can have more side effects than adults and are more likely to get an overdose of the medicine.
Cough medicines are not recommended for children under 6 years old.
Here are some ways to help your child feel better:
Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: September 2015
|Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) The CDC (the national public health institute of the United States) promotes health and quality of life by preventing and controlling disease, injury, and disability.|
|American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) The AAP is committed to the health and well-being of infants, adolescents, and young adults. The website offers news articles and tips on health for families.|
|CDC: Vaccines & Immunizations The CDC's site has information on vaccines, including immunization schedules, recommendations, FAQs, and more.|
|Immunization Action Coalition This organization is a source of childhood, adolescent, and adult immunization information as well as hepatitis B educational materials.|
|First Aid: Coughing Coughing is a healthy reflex that helps clear the airways. A severe or lingering cough requires medical treatment, but many coughs are caused by viruses that just need to run their course.|
|Croup Croup is characterized by a loud cough that resembles the barking of a seal and difficulty breathing. Most cases of croup are caused by viruses, are mild, and can be treated at home.|
|Asthma Millions of teens in the United States have asthma, a lung condition that causes difficulty breathing. Here are the basics on symptoms, triggers, and treatments.|
|Is It a Cold or the Flu? Your child is sent home from school with a sore throat, cough, and high fever - could it be the flu that's been going around? Or is it just a common cold? Find out here!|
|Chilling Out With Colds Cough, sneeze, snort. Those are the sounds of a cold. Find out more about colds in this article for kids.|
|Coping With Colds Most teens get between two and four colds each year. Read this article for the facts on chicken soup, cold medicines, and other ways to feel better.|
|Respiratory Syncytial Virus Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a major cause of respiratory illness in young children. Learn how to recognize the signs and symptoms of this contagious infection.|
|Common Cold With kids getting up to eight colds a year, this contagious viral infection is the most common infectious disease in the United States and the top reason kids visit the doctor and miss school.|
|Asthma Center Asthma keeps more kids home from school than any other chronic illness. Learn how to help your child manage the condition, stay healthy, and stay in school.|
|A to Z: Bronchiectasis Learn about causes of breathing difficulties and conditions that can affect the lungs and bronchi.|
|The Woes of Whooping Cough Kids who have whooping cough make a "whoop" sound when they cough. Find out more in this article for kids.|
|Whooping Cough (Pertussis) Pertussis is characterized by severe coughing spells that end in a whooping sound when the person breathes in. It can be prevented with the pertussis vaccine, part of the DTaP immunization.|
|Asthma Asthma can cause a person's airways to get swollen and irritated, making it hard to breathe. Find out more in this article for kids.|
|Your Lungs & Respiratory System What's something kids are doing all day, every day? Breathing! Your lungs are large and in charge of breathing, so read all about them in this article.|
|Chronic Hoarseness Misuse of the vocal cords — caused by such things as repetitive screaming, yelling, or using the voice in an unnatural way — can lead to chronic hoarseness. Learn how to get the voice back into perfect pitch.|
|Immune System The immune system, composed of special cells, proteins, tissues, and organs that protect against germs and microorganisms, is the body's defense against disease.|
|Lungs and Respiratory System By the time we're 70 years old, we will have taken at least 600 million breaths. All of this breathing couldn't happen without the respiratory system.|
|Laryngitis Did you ever hear someone say, "I lost my voice"? Did you think: "What did you do with it?" The person might have laryngitis.|
|Flu Facts Every year from October to May, millions of people across the United States come down with the flu. Get the facts on the flu - including how to avoid it.|
What to expect when coming to Akron Children's
For healthcare providers and nurses
Residency & Fellowships, Medical Students, Nursing and Allied Health
For prospective employees and career-seekers
Our online community that provides inspirational stories and helpful information.