Cough & Cold
Why do children cough?
The purpose of a cough is to clear something out of the airway. The most common causes of airway blockage are secretions caused by an infection or allergy, or a foreign body.
If your child has been completely well and is suddenly coughing vigorously and constantly, or could be choking on food or a small object, please seek immediate medical attention.
The average child under three years of age will have approximately ten colds per year. A cold is caused by a virus and often involves a runny nose, cough and fever. Fever is usually present during the first few days of illness and resolves, yet the runny nose and cough can linger for up to two weeks. The illness might begin with a clear runny nose but over time the mucus might become white/yellow/green. Any mucus that sits will change colors, and the darker mucus color does not mean that your child needs antibiotics. Cough is usually worse at night because the secretions fall onto the back of the throat, irritating it. Any irritation of the throat will worsen the cough.
If your child is coughing and it sounds like a seal barking then you are probably dealing with a viral illness known as croup. This illness is like a common cold but has a distinctive cough – the bark- and a distinctive pattern. The typical child with croup will seem relatively well during the day but for the first three nights will have an intense barking cough. Steam (see cough/cold treatment page) is a great remedy. If steam doesn’t work, bundle your child in a blanket and sit outside – the cool night air often calms the airway and the cough. If your child has difficulty breathing or makes a high pitched noise while breathing that does not disappear with the steam or cold night air you will need to see your doctor/ go to the Emergency Room for care.
What are signs that your child is having difficulty breathing?
- Fast breathing – deep or shallow, panting
- Labored breathing – using muscles in the chest and stomach to breathe
- Noisy breathing: high pitched sounds with breathing, grunting
- Nasal Flaring: nostrils flare out with each breath
If your child is having only a small amount of difficulty, the first thing to do is clear out his/her nose. Use a bulb syringe in a young child, have an older child blow his/her nose. If no mucus comes out use nasal saline (salt water) drops in each nostril and then attempt to clear the nose again. If this works and your child resumes breathing normally you can continue to decongest as needed.
If your child is having a lot of difficulty, as described above, you need to seek immediate medical attention.
If your child is/has any of the following, contact and/or see your physician:
- Less than 2 months old
- Difficulty breathing as described above
- Long coughing spells when it is difficult to catch his/her breath
- Drowsy, listless
- Bluish discoloration around mouth or fingers
- Fever lasts more than 3-5 days
- Cough that lasts more than 2 weeks
If you feel that something is just not right – remember, no one knows your child like you do!
-Monique Araya, MD, FAAP
The medical information on this Web site is provided for educational purposes only. The information provided in this site, or through linkages to other sites, is not a substitute for medical or professional care, and you should not use the information in place of a visit, call consultation or the advice of your physician or other healthcare provider.
If you believe you have a medical emergency you should call 911 or your physician immediately. If you have any questions regarding your health or a medical condition, you should promptly consult your physician.
- Accidental Poisoning
- Bites and Stings
- Burns (and sunburns)
- Childhood Asthma
- Colic and Crying Babies
- Constipation in Children
- Cough & Cold
- Diaper Rash
- Ear Pain
- Head Trauma and Head Injuries
- Kids and Allergies
- Medication Dosages
- Nosebleeds in Children
- Pink Eye and Styes
- Scrapes, Cuts and Stitches
- Sudden/Acute Abdominal Pain
- Treating a Common Cold Cough
- Vomiting and Nausea