Coughing is a relatively common symptom of COVID-19. Here’s how to tell whether your child has a normal cough or if it could be related to the coronavirus, and when you need to call the doctor.

By Nicole Harris
June 04, 2020
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It’s true that COVID-19 isn’t as common in children, and those under 18 years old generally present with mild cold-like symptoms, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, experts recently learned that severe cases are possible in babies, toddlers, and kids—and young people are susceptible to a mysterious illness called multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C). It’s no wonder that parents worry whenever their child lets out a cough! 

But how can you tell the difference between a coronavirus-induced cough and one caused by normal circumstances? We spoke with an expert to break down this relatively common COVID-19 symptom.

Is Coughing a Sign of the Coronavirus?

Here’s the confounding thing about COVID-19: Patients can present with drastically different symptoms, ranging from sore throat to fever to gastrointestinal issues. Coughing seems to be one of the most common, along with fever and shortness of breath.

The CDC studied 149,082 laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases between February 12 and April 2, 2020. Of this number, 2,572 were children younger than 18 years old, and experts analyzed symptoms from 291 of them. About 56 percent reported fever, 54 percent had cough, and 13 percent experienced shortness of breath. Compare this to the adult population, of which the prevalence of fever, cough, and shortness of breath was 71 percent, 80 percent, and 43 percent, respectively. 

Nearly 20 percent of pediatric patients studied were asymptomatic carriers. Keep in mind, though, that this study only reported laboratory-confirmed coronavirus cases, so it might not be an accurate representation of the general population. It’s entirely possible for a higher percentage of kids to have the coronavirus without cough, fever, or any other symptoms. 

What Does a Coronavirus Cough Sound Like?

According to Hector de Leon, M.D., pediatrician for Kaiser Permanente in Colorado, the coronavirus type of cough is often dry—meaning it doesn’t produce mucus or phlegm. It’s likely caused by irritation of the lung tissues from the virus. Other signs of a dry cough include tickling in the throat, hacking sounds, and no feeling of relief after a coughing spell.

It’s important to note, though, that a smaller percentage of coronavirus patients report a productive wet cough instead, says Dr. de Leon. This type of cough releases mucus or phlegm, and it often comes with postnasal drip.

My Child is Coughing—Does She Have COVID-19?

Parents and children everywhere are asking, “If I have a cough, do I have the coronavirus?” Don’t panic just yet. “There’s a lot of different reasons why people cough. It’s not always infectious,” says Dr. de Leon. “We need to consider the big picture when diagnosing coughs.” Besides COVID-19, dry or wet cough might also signal a viral illness like a cold or flu, asthma, allergies, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), or irritation from environmental factors like smoke.

Try analyzing your child’s overall health. Does he also have sneezing, red eyes, and a scratchy throat? If so, his symptoms are likely from allergies, says Dr. de Leon. Similarly, if her cough gets worse after eating and comes with heartburn, the diagnosis might be GERD. “If your child isn’t struggling, if they can do the things that they normally do like play outside, it's probably something they can manage at home,” says Dr. de Leon. 

Your child may have COVID-19 if he’s had recent exposure, or if he develops other symptoms of the virus. Symptoms generally appear 2-14 days after transmission, and they include:

  • Fever
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Aches
  • Sore throat
  • Fatigue
  • Gastrointestinal issues like vomiting and diarrhea
  • Loss of taste or smell

When to Call the Doctor

Alert the doctor if you think your child may have COVID-19. Always the call office before visiting; they may need to take special precautions for possible coronavirus cases. Also, “illness can often be diagnosed through a phone visit,” says Dr. de Leon. The healthcare provider will assess whether your child needs to come in for a coronavirus test. 

Also your doctor immediately for worrisome symptoms that accompany coughing, such as:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Bluish lips or face
  • Sluggishness or inability to wake
  • Harsh abdominal pain
  • Signs of multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C): fever, rash, abdominal pain, vomiting, and/or diarrhea

How to Treat a Coronavirus Cough

There’s currently no antiviral treatment for the coronavirus. The CDC recommends staying home, getting enough rest, and monitoring your symptoms.  Dr. de Leon adds that honey can soothe a dry cough, and staying hydrated also promotes a faster recovery. 

Perhaps the most important thing, though, is staying isolated to stop the spread of COVID-19 to others. While children generally have mild cases, the coronavirus can be serious for elderly people and those with compromised immune systems. Caregivers should wash their hands often, disinfect surfaces regularly, and avoid sharing personal items. 

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