Cough in Children: Causes & Treatment

It’s cold and flu season and most often cough accompanies these illnesses. Jennifer Saper, MD, MS, an attending physician at Lurie Children's, answers some common questions about coughs in children, including common symptoms, treatment and more.

What causes cough in children?

A cough in children can be caused by a variety of reasons, ranging from common colds and allergies to more serious conditions like pneumonia. Here are some of the most common conditions that may cause a cough:

  • A cold or respiratory virus (including RSV or COVID-19)
  • Croup
  • Bronchiolitis
  • Allergies
  • Asthma
  • Pneumonia
  • Reflux
  • A foreign object (like a coin)

How is a cough diagnosed?

Diagnosing a cough in children usually involves a combination of factors. The doctor will take into account the child's medical history and the characteristics and symptoms of the cough itself. The sound of the cough is a clue, but it does not tell the whole story.

In general, coughs fall into two categories: wet or dry. Both coughs tend to get worse at bedtime and during colder months of the year. The provider may also perform a comprehensive physical exam and if necessary, additional tests (like an X-ray) to determine the best treatment for your child's cough.

How to Treat Cough in Children

Treating a cough depends on the cause. Children over 12 months old may get some relief with 2-5mL of honey to loosen up mucus and coughing. Running a warm shower to make steam and taking your kid into the room (but not the shower) can also help break up a persistent cough. Staying hydrated is important as having enough water in the body also helps to thin mucus.

Cough medicine is not recommended for infants or babies. A humidifier can help, as can nasal suctioning with either a bulb suction to help clear congestion and make breathing easier.

For a nighttime cough, one anecdotal remedy, reported by many families, is VaporRub on a child’s feet with socks on; this certainly will not harm the child!     

When should I call my doctor about a cough?

A common symptom of a cold or respiratory virus is coughing. Young children may have colds that can last two weeks or more, with some coughs lasting 2 to 3 weeks. Sometimes two colds in quick succession can appear to be one long illness. However, you need to call your child’s doctor when your child has these other symptoms: 

  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty breathing at chest level (not just nasal congestion)
  • Fever, especially a fever that lasts longer than 72 hours
  • Inability to drink or talk
  • Sleep disruption for more than a couple of nights
  • Mild coughs that last more than 4 weeks

Learn more about Lurie Children's primary care.

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