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A to Z Symptom: Cough

Coughing is a protective reflex that is usually a sign of an irritation or blockage somewhere in the respiratory tract. While not harmful, coughing can be upsetting—especially when there are other symptoms. It can disrupt activities and sleep.

What Causes Coughing?

Coughing can be caused by:

  • swelling and irritation (inflammation) in the airways due to an infection
  • sinusitis
  • postnasal drip from allergies, a cold, or other respiratory illness
  • chemicals (like perfumes) that cause irritation

Coughing that lasts for more than 4 weeks in a child is called a “chronic” cough. A common but often unrecognized cause of a chronic cough is gastroesophageal reflux (GER). This is when stomach acid moves backward (refluxes) from the stomach into the esophagus. A chronic cough also happens with a wide range of other medical conditions that can irritate or affect the lungs or upper airway.

How Is Coughing Treated?

Treatment depends on the cause. Most coughs that are due to respiratory infections like a cold only need home care (lots of fluids and other comfort measures).

Cough suppressants are not recommended for kids because they can cause serious side effects, such as slowed breathing.

Some infections, though, do need medical evaluation and treatment, such as bacterial infections, allergies, inhaled objects, and GER.

Kids with a cough caused by an infection should stay home from school until any fever is gone and they are no longer considered contagious.

What Else Should I Know About Coughing?

Intense or lasting coughing may be a sign of a serious or ongoing problem, such as an inhaled object or other medical issue that needs medical attention. Call your doctor if you're concerned about your child’s cough.

All A to Z dictionary entries are regularly reviewed by KidsHealth medical experts.

Reviewed by: KidsHealth Medical Experts

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