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 a Cough?

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!

If My Child Has a Cough, 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 most cases, the history and physical exam are sufficient

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.

How Do You Treat a Cough?

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!