Dry Cough in Kids: Causes, Remedies, and When to See a Doctor
Not every cough produces mucus or phlegm. People often release dry coughs (also known as nonproductive coughs) to clear a tickle in their throat. This is usually triggered by irritation along the upper respiratory tract from allergies, acid reflux, asthma, or other factors. Some dry coughs can get better with home treatment while others require medical intervention. Keep reading to learn more about dry cough causes, remedies, and when to see a doctor.
What is a Dry Cough?
Wondering how to tell if your child has a dry cough? Look for the following dry cough symptoms:
- Coughing without mucus or phlegm
- Hacking sound that may appear forceful
- Sensation of tickling in the throat
- A cough that lingers for weeks after an illness subsides
Dry Cough Causes
Dry cough in kids has plenty of different causes. Check out this list and ask your doctor for a definitive diagnosis.
Acid Reflux or GERD
During an episode of acid reflux, stomach contents release into the esophagus, triggering a dry cough from irritation. Chronic acid reflux, which is called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), could cause persistent dry cough in kids or babies. Other symptoms of GERD include heartburn, sore throat, difficulty swallowing, regurgitation of food into the throat, stomach pain, choking, bad breath, and chest pain.
Allergies happen when your immune system considers a foreign substance (like pollen or pet hair) to be a threat. Your body responds by producing more mucus, which can travel down your throat as cough-inducing postnasal drip. Other allergy symptoms include red itchy eyes, sneezing, ear congestion, and sinus pressure.
- RELATED: How to Decode Your Baby's Cough
Asthma is a chronic disease that causes your child's airways to swell when exposed to a trigger (dust, pollen, illness, etc.) This can lead to lung inflammation and symptoms like dry cough, shortness of breath, wheezing, and chest congestion.
The coronavirus has a host of symptoms, but dry cough seems to be relatively common. If your child is experiencing a dry cough with fever and shortness of breath, contact your healthcare provider—especially if you’ve had possible exposure to the virus. Other COVID-19 symptoms might include body aches, loss of smell or taste, runny nose, sore throat, and gastrointestinal issues.
Croup is a viral infection that inflames the vocal cords and larynx. It targets children between the ages of 3 months and 5 years—often in late winter. One telltale sign is a baby dry cough that’s harsh, barking, and gets worse at night. Your child may also have noisy breathing or a hoarse voice.
- RELATED: Croup Symptoms and Treatment
Irritants in the Environment
Some children are extra sensitive to irritants in the environment, such as dust, car exhaust, smoke, and mold. Exposure can bring on a dry cough, especially if the air lacks moisture. It can turn into a chronic dry cough with prolonged exposure to the irritant.
Upper Respiratory Infection (Cold or Flu)
Influenza and the common cold both have many symptoms, which might include a wet cough. But after the virus leaves your body, a persistent dry cough (caused by residual mucus) can stick around for days or weeks. Other viral infections associated with dry cough include pneumonia and bronchiolitis.
Whooping cough (pertussis) is a serious infection of the upper respiratory tract. It often starts with cold-like symptoms, then turns into a persistent cough with "whooping" sounds, loss of appetite, and low-grade fever. Whooping cough isn’t very common now because there’s a vaccine for it. However, it can be fatal in babies who develop serious complications like pneumonia.
Other Causes of Dry Cough in Kids
Additional dry cough causes include:
- Inhaling food or a small toy. A kid will often have a dry and wheezing cough when there's a blockage in the airway. If she can still breath fine, try releasing the item with pats on the back, then visit a doctor if it doesn't dislodge. Call 9-1-1 and dislodge the object immediately if your child is in obvious distress, is making throat-grabbing motions, or has pale or blue skin.
- A "habit" cough with no particular cause
- Side effect from medications, such as ACE inhibitors
When to See a Doctor for Dry Cough
In most cases, a toddler dry cough, baby dry cough, and child dry cough will go away on its own. But you should visit the pediatrician if the coughing lasts longer than 2–3 weeks, since it could indicate a chronic condition like asthma or GERD. Also see the doctor if your child is younger than 4 months or has any of the following symptoms:
- A dry cough that turns into a wet cough with blood or green mucus
- A wheezing cough, which could indicate bronchiolitis
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- High fever
- Signs of dehydration
Dry cough treatment will depend upon the underlying cause. The doctor will first ask himself, “What does the dry cough mean?” before making a treatment plan. For example, those with asthma may need an inhaler, while those with GERD might need to implement diet and lifestyle changes. Your doctor may also prescribe antibiotics or antihistamines in certain cases.
Dry Cough Remedies for Babies, Toddlers, and Children
Wondering how to get rid of dry cough at home? First things first, avoid giving cough syrups and cough medicine to young children. The American Academy of Pediatrics says there’s no evidence that cough medicine is effective for children younger than 6, and it can have dangerous consequences for those under 4 years old. That said, consider using the following home remedies for dry cough.
- To treat a dry cough at night, put a cool mist vaporizer or humidifier in your child’s room. The moisture helps open the airways to relieve dry cough.
- Lift your child’s bed for elevated sleeping, which could help dry cough from GERD or postnasal drop.
- Serve your child warm liquids like decaffeinated tea or chicken broth. Warm liquids loosen up mucus and create a soothing sensation.
- Consider giving your child cough drops or throat lozenges (as long as she’s old enough to suck on them without swallowing). These products contain throat-soothing ingredients like menthol and honey, which may serve as a dry cough treatment.
- To ease throat irritation, older kids can take a hot shower. Younger kids can sit in a steamy bathroom with their parents for about 20 minutes.