How to identify different types of coughs (wet, dry, croup, and whooping cough) and the best course of treatment for each.
Children cough when the lining of the windpipe becomes irritated. This often happens when a child is sick or when the body is fighting off an illness and making lots of mucus or phlegm. Coughing is normally a symptom of a respiratory infection, but it may be caused by other respiratory diseases (like asthma). Coughing is an important reflex because it removes the extra mucus and lets air flow more easily through the windpipe and into the lungs, which helps the child to breathe.
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A child's cough is often worse when the child is lying in bed because the mucus can collect in the back of the throat. Children tend to swallow the mucus, rather than spit it out (as most adults do); this can cause the child to have an upset stomach or to vomit, especially when there is a coughing fit. The mucus can also appear in the child's stool.
Children who are coughing will often have other symptoms, such as fever, runny nose, or difficulty breathing. Take note of your child?s other symptoms to help you figure out the cause of his illness.
Types of Coughs
There are four distinct types of cough: dry cough, wet cough, croup cough, and whooping cough. It is important to know what type of cough your child has, and what it might mean.
Dry Cough A dry, hacking cough is often caused by an infection of the upper respiratory tract (nose and throat), such as a cold or influenza. This type of cough usually gets worse in a warm room or after the child has gone to bed, but a dry cough may also be an early sign of an infection of the lower respiratory tract, as with bronchitis (the inflammation of the smallest airways in the lungs) or pneumonia (the inflammation of the lung tissue itself). Other causes include asthma, which first appears as a dry nighttime cough, and exposure to cigarette smoke or other similar irritants.
Croup Cough Croup is a disease that causes a harsh, barking, dry cough that can sound similar to a seal barking. Croup in kids results in a swollen upper trachea, or windpipe; this is usually caused by a viral infection. The swelling, which is beneath the vocal cords, causes the barking cough. A child with croup may make a high-pitched sound, known as stridor, when breathing in.
Wet Cough A wet cough is caused by fluid secretions and mucus found in the lower respiratory tract (windpipe and lungs). Common causes of wet cough include infections and asthma. The coughing removes fluid from the lower respiratory tract.
Whooping Cough (also known as pertussis) A child with whooping cough will have symptoms similar to an ordinary cold, but gradually the cough becomes worse, with severe fits of deep, fast coughing, especially at night. The frequent coughing fits are generally a series of 5 to 15 staccato coughs in rapid succession. After coughing, the child will breathe deeply, sometimes making a "whooping" sound. The rapid coughing can lead to breathing problems and the child can look somewhat blue because of the temporary shortage of oxygen.
When to Worry: Coughs & Colds
Complications of Coughs
A dangerous reason for coughing is that something is stuck in the child's throat or windpipe. If your child suddenly starts coughing and seems to have real trouble breathing, or she starts grabbing her throat, there is a small object or a piece of hard food stuck in the windpipe. In children older than 1 year, perform the Heimlich maneuver. Otherwise, call 911 or the doctor immediately if your child:
- Is younger than 1 month old
- Has an obvious breathing disorder that is not due to a blocked nose
- Is having coughing spasms and passing out (loss of consciousness)
- Has started to turn blue around the lips, mouth, and fingernails
- Is coughing up blood
- Is less active than normal
- Is having a seizure
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If you are certain that your child is not choking, check to see if other serious symptoms are present. Make an appointment with your doctor today if your child:
- Is vomiting or has chest pains
- Has asthma or an allergic reaction
- Has a sinus infection
- Has had a fever of 100°F or higher for more than 72 hours
- Is between the ages of 1 to 3 months and has been coughing for more than 72 hours
- Has been suffering from increasing or persistent coughing for more than three weeks
Treatment for Coughs
If your child has a cough, try the following treatments:
1. Give your child plenty to drink. This will prevent the mucus from thickening. Hot liquids or soups will ease the soreness and irritation in the chest and can loosen mucus as well.
2. Let your child inhale humidified air (air that has moisture in it). Water vapor can ease and reduce your child's coughing. This can be done in several ways:
- Use a cool-mist humidifier in your child's bedroom.
- Run a warm shower in the bathroom with the door shut. When the room is filled with steam, sit in the bathroom with your child on your lap for approximately 10 minutes. Read or sing to him so that he will be relaxed.
- Hang a damp towel in your child's bedroom.
3. If your child has a dry cough or a croup cough, let him inhale cool air. Breathing in cool air will reduce the swelling in the respiratory tract, which will then suppress the coughing. You can do this in several ways:
- Open the window so that your child can inhale cool, humid air.
- Take the child outside for a drive with the car windows open.
- Let the child inhale the vapor from an open refrigerator or freezer.
A child with a distinct dry cough should avoid exercise. Older children often notice their cough gets worse during physical activity.
4. Give over-the-counter cough medicines (although they may not be that effective). There are two types of cough medications:
- Expectorant cough medicines, which help loosen mucus for a wet cough.
- Cough-suppressant medicines, which inhibit the cough reflex for a dry cough that affects sleep. They should not be administered for a wet cough because the cough is needed expel the mucus, and they should not be given to children younger than 12 months old.
5. Pertussis (whooping cough) can be prevented by the DTap vaccine for children and the TDap vaccine for adults who are often in contact with children. Even with the vaccination, though, it is possible for children to develop a mild case of the disease. Infants who have not been immunized are also susceptible to infection, as are adults and adolescents with low immunity. Non-vaccinated individuals can easily spread the infection to others.
When to Worry: A Lingering Cough
Copyright © 2012 Meredith Corporation. Updated in 2018.