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Understanding Cough in Children

January 14, 2019

It’s cold and flu season and most often cough accompanies these illnesses. Dr. Diane Holmes from Lurie Children’s Primary Care – Town & Country Pediatrics answers some common questions about coughs in children.

What Causes Cough in Children?

Many conditions can cause a cough, and these include:

  • a cold or respiratory virus
  • croup
  • bronchiolitis
  • allergies
  • asthma
  • pneumonia
  • reflux
  • a foreign body (like a coin)
  • and more!

How Do We Find the Cause?

  • A thorough history
  • A comprehensive physical exam and
  • Additional tests, in some cases—for example, an X-Ray

What Are Different Types of Coughs & How Do You Tell Them Apart?

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 in the year.

In most cases, the history and physical exam are sufficient for doctors to determine the best treatment for your child's cough.

When Do I Call My Doctor About a Cough?

You usually do NOT need to call your child’s doctor about a cough if s/he:

  • is not having difficulty breathing
  • does not have shortness of breath
  • has no fever
  • is sleeping at night and
  • is acting in his/her usual way

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

My Child Seems to Have a Cold on a Frequent Basis & This Comes with Coughing—Is This Normal?

Yes, a cold or respiratory virus often leads to coughing.

Young children can have a 12 colds a year; each cold can last two weeks or more. Sometimes two colds in quick succession can appear to be one long illness.

Treating Cough in Children

This depends on the cause. Unfortunately the most common cause of coughing in children in the winter is a respiratory virus, and nothing works well for this type of cough.  

You may get some relief with cough medicine containing honey (for infants over 12 months) and a humidifier.

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!     

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