Caring for a baby with a wet or dry cough? Listen for wheezing, hacking, or barking first, then read on to find out what's normal and when it's time to worry.

By Evan Forster
Alena Stalmashonak/Shutterstock

A baby's cough can mean many different things, and it's not as if you can ask your baby what's wrong. Sometimes it's hard to know if you should call your doctor for advice, make an appointment, or head straight to the emergency room.

Coughs are the body's way of protecting itself, explains Howard Balbi, M.D., director of pediatric infectious diseases at Nassau County Medical Center in East Meadow, New York. Coughing serves as the method the body uses to keep the airways clear, ridding the throat of phlegm, postnasal drip (nasal mucus that drips down the back of the throat), or a lodged piece of food.

There are two kinds of coughs that serve this purpose: dry cough and wet cough. 

Baby Dry Cough: This occurs when a baby has a cold or allergies. A dry cough helps clear postnasal drip or irritation from a sore throat.

Baby Wet Cough: This results from a respiratory illness accompanying a bacterial infection. A wet cough causes phlegm or mucus (which contains white blood cells to help fight germs) to form in the baby's airways.

Children younger than 4 months don't cough much, so if they do, it's serious, says Catherine Dundon, M.D., an associate clinical professor of pediatrics at Vanderbilt University Medical School and a pediatrician in Goodlettsville, Tennessee. If a newborn is coughing terribly in the winter, for example, it could be respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a dangerous viral infection for infants. Once your child is older than age 1, coughs are less alarming, and they often signal nothing more than a cold.

Wondering what to do for a baby with a cough? To help you differentiate a wait-and-see cough from one that demands immediate medical attention, stay calm, listen carefully to the baby cough, and follow the directions below.

Baby Cough That Indicates a Cold

Sounds Like: Dry hack

Symptoms: Signs of a baby cough that may indicate a cold or the flu include a stuffy or runny nose and sore throat. Coughs are usually dry, but depending on the severity of the cold, your baby can have rattling mucus and/or a slight fever at night.

Baby Cough Remedies for a Cold: Try your own mother's "lots-of-fluids-and-plenty-of-rest" routine. Although you may be eager to give Baby cough medicine or cough syrup, the American Academy of Pediatrics advises against using these for kids under 6 years because studies have shown that they don't work—and they can have potentially fatal side effects. It's better to stick to natural baby cough remedies such as honey (for babies over a year), saline drops, and a cool-mist humidifier. Acetaminophen is safe to use to reduce a fever.

If your child's temperature is 100.4 degrees or higher and she looks sickly, call your doctor. It's likely that she has the flu. Also call your doctor immediately if your baby is 4 months old or younger and she has any signs of fever; even a slight fever is serious in infants.

READ MORE: All-Natural Toddler Cough Remedies

Baby Croup Cough

Usually caused by a viral infection, croup makes the lining of the trachea swell up and closes the airways, which makes it hard for Baby to breathe.

Sounds Like: Barking cough

Symptoms of Croup: The most telling croup cough symptom: hearing your baby coughing at night with a barking noise (the sound is hard to mistake) and difficulty breathing. The seal-like barking cough appears when Baby inhales (not on the exhale).

Croup typically affects children under age 5 and often begins with a normal cold or sniffle earlier in the day. After you first hear your baby coughing in sleep, croup should clear up in three or four days; if it doesn't, call your doctor.

Croup Treatment: First try to calm your child. Then consider one of the following techniques to ease her breathing:

  • Run the shower, close the bathroom door, and let your child breathe in the steamy air.
  • If it's a mild evening, take him outside; the damp air should make it easier for him to breathe.
  • Have your child breathe the air from a cool-mist humidifier.

READ MORE: Croup Symptoms and Treatment

Baby Cough That Indicates Bronchiolitis

According to Ruffin Franklin, M.D. of Capitol Pediatrics and Adolescent Center in Raleigh, North Carolina, many things cause constriction of the airways, including environmental factors such as dust. The vast majority of cases of bronchiolitis in babies under age 1 are caused by respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). This virus causes a simple cold in kids older than 3, but it can penetrate the lungs of infants and can be potentially life-threatening, warns David Rubin, M.D., chief of pediatrics at St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx, New York.

Sounds Like: Wheezing

Symptoms: Bronchiolitis comes on after what seems to be a basic cold, with coughing and a runny nose. Since baby cough or wheezing is associated with both bronchiolitis and asthma, it can be hard to tell them apart. However, bronchiolitis is usually seen in the fall and winter and may be accompanied by a slight fever and loss of appetite.

Baby Cough Remedies for Bronchiolitis: You can treat bronchiolitis at home once Baby's breathing is under control. Give your baby lots of fluids, plenty of rest, and a cool-mist humidifier, and always keep an eye on your child's respiratory rate. If it gets too high—50 breaths per minute or more—your child is definitely in respiratory distress. Call 911.

READ MORE: Bronchiolitis Symptoms and Treatment

Whooping Cough in Babies

This life-threatening bacterial infection was a leading cause of infant illness and death until the DTaP vaccine was created in the 1960s, which practically eradicated it in the U.S. However, whooping cough has been making a comeback and there have been outbreaks in many states in recent years.

Sounds Like: A loud, rapid whoop

Symptoms: In most cases of whooping cough (pertussis), baby has no cold symptoms or fever. Signs of whooping cough include:

Preventing Whooping Cough: Make sure your baby has been immunized. And because babies aren't fully protected until they've received three doses of the vaccine, it's essential that you and all of your infants' caregivers get vaccinated with the Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis) booster.

Treatment for Whooping Cough: If you suspect your baby is suffering from whooping cough, call 911 immediately. By the time the coughing fits develop, the infant must be hospitalized so he can receive oxygen during coughing spells, according to Dr. Franklin. Your baby—as well as every member of your household—will also be prescribed the antibiotic erythromycin to prevent the spread of this very contagious disease. If the child comes through the initial attack, whooping cough will need to run its course, which can take months.

READ MORE: Whooping Cough Symptoms and Treatment

Pneumonia Baby Cough 

Pneumonia is a viral or bacterial infection of the lungs brought on by a number of conditions, including the common cold

Sounds Like: Wet and phlegmy

Symptoms: A baby with pneumonia will be very fatigued. She will also have a "productive" wet baby cough, bringing up everything imaginable in shades of green and yellow.

Treatment for Pneumonia: Treatment depends on whether the cause is viral or bacterial, so call your doctor, especially if the baby has a fever. Bacterial pneumonia is usually more dangerous and is most commonly brought on by strep pneumoniae.

READ MORE: Pneumonia Symptoms and Treatment

Asthma Baby Cough 

Doctors generally agree that asthma is not common in children younger than 2, unless the baby has had bouts of eczema and there's a family history of allergies and asthma. Until there is an absolute diagnosis of asthma, a tightening of baby's airways resulting in wheezing is referred to as Reactive Airway Disease.

Sounds Like: Wheezing

Symptoms: In the case of asthma symptoms, your baby will be suffering from retractions (a sucking in and out of the chest and diaphragm). Your infant will also probably start out with:

  • Cold symptoms
  • Itchy and runny eyes

How to Help Baby with a Cough from Asthma: Whatever the case, it's always best to call your doctor when you hear your infant wheezing. Even without a definitive diagnosis of asthma, doctors often use asthma medication to treat a bout of wheezing. Your doctor may prescribe a liquid form of albuterol to open the airways. If the asthma attacks are very severe, albuterol is administered via a nebulizer—a special device that delivers the medicine in a fine mist—sometimes used with an infant-sized face mask so baby can inhale the drug more easily. 

If a young baby has a terrible cough or one that worsens after a day or two, and her breathing becomes labored, call your pediatrician immediately. As with bronchiolitis, keep an eye on your child's respiratory rate. If it gets too high—50 breaths per minute or more—your child is definitely in respiratory distress. Call 911.

READ MORE: Baby Asthma Basics

Baby Cough That Indicates Foreign Object

Food, such as a piece of carrot or hot dog, is the most common cause of choking. If a baby starts gasping or coughing suddenly while eating or playing with small toys, look in his mouth for an obvious culprit. He can usually cough it out himself.

Sounds Like: Small, persistent cough or gasping

Symptoms: Since babies are always sticking things in their mouth, it's possible to miss something that's been stuck for days. Symptoms of a baby cough from a foreign object include:

  • An initial coughing spell followed by a persistent cough or slight wheezing over a period of days afterward—without any other cold symptoms and no recent history of cold or fever
  • Pneumonia can also be a result of food that got swallowed the wrong way and stuck in Baby's lungs—peanuts are very common culprits, says Dr. Dundon.

If the object has totally blocked your baby's airway, she would exhibit the following symptoms:

  • Appearing to be in obvious distress
  • Making no sound at all
  • Turning pale or blue

Treatment for Object Stuck in Baby’s Throat: If you suspect a totally blocked passageway, turn the baby over and immediately deliver five back blows between his shoulder blades. If you're unable to dislodge the foreign object, call 911.

In the case of a partially lodged object, try to help baby cough it up by tilting his head down and giving him a few gentle pats on the back. If you suspect your baby is suffering from a partially lodged object, but she doesn't appear able to cough it up, she'll need a chest x-ray. If a bit of food is indeed stuck, the doctor will refer you to a specialist who can perform a bronchoscopy. During the procedure, the child is put under general anesthesia, and a tiny fiber-optic tube with tweezers at the end goes down the airway and picks out the foreign body.

READ MORE: Choking Hazards and Your Baby

Baby Cough: When to Worry

Call your doctor if your baby has:

  • Any cough, and she's younger than 4 months
  • A dry cough related to a cold (a runny nose but no fever) that lasts more than five to seven days
  • A dry or wet cough with a cold and a fever of 100 degrees or more
  • Mild, light wheezing
  • Fits of coughing

Call 911 if Baby is:

  • Wheezing rapidly
  • Grunting
  • Unable to catch his breath
  • Turning blue
  • Rapidly retracting and expanding his stomach
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