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You are here: Home > Baby > Baby Care & Health - Decoding the Cough in Babies & Toddlers

Decoding the Cough in Babies & Toddlers

by Kathleen Roberts
29 Comments

Decoding the Cough in Babies & Toddlers

Cough in babies and toddlers can be distressing for any parent. How do you know what your child's cough means? Should you see a doctor? Do you need to worry or just wait it out? All of these are important questions so knowing the answers ahead of time will save you time and possibly unnecessary worrying.

Cough and the Common Cold

You know how annoying it is to have a cold. Imagine how much more so it is for your child. You can take nearly any over-the-counter medicine you want for relief of your symptoms. Your child has very limited choices, especially now that cough medicines have been found to pose a risk to children under six years old.

If your child has a cold, he likely has a dry, hacking cough. There may be a little bit of rattling in his chest due to mucus. He'll also have a runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, watery eyes, reduced appetite and possibly a low-grade fever.

In most cases, a cold will clear up on its own. Just provide your baby with plenty of fluids and rest. It is also helpful to soothe his little nose with saline drops and ease his congestion with a rubber bulb syringe. A cool-mist humidifier can be helpful as well.

In some cases a cold can turn into something a bit more serious. If your child runs a fever of 100 degrees for three days (or a higher fever of 103 for just one day) this could indicate that he has the flu. He may also have an ear or sinus infection. See your doctor if your baby has a fever, if he has yellow discharge from his eyes or if he has a green mucus discharge from his nose for more than two weeks.

If the cough last more than a week, your child refuses fluids, or if the cough causes him to vomit or has blood in the expelled mucus, see your doctor as soon as possible.

Asthma and Bronchitis

The cough you'll notice with asthma and bronchitis is very similar. It may be accompanied by wheezing and noisy breathing as airways tighten. People of all ages can get bronchitis but in infants, bronchiolitis is usually the problem.

Asthma can cause coughing, especially at night. An asthma attack needs to be treated immediately with medicines that your doctor will prescribe. These can include prescriptions that will stop an attack as well as other medicine that will help prevent an attack. If you suspect that your baby is having an asthma attack and you do not have any medications for her, call 911 or get to an emergency room as quickly as you can

If your family has a history of asthma, there is nothing you can do to prevent your baby from developing it too. However, you can delay the development and help prevent attacks. Avoiding possible triggers goes a long way toward prevention. If your child has allergies you should consider seeing an allergist for help. Eliminate allergy triggers such as smoke (from cigarettes and the fireplace), dust mites, animal hair and mold. Air pollution and over-exertion can also trigger an attack.

Bronchiolitis is typically caused by a virus called the Respiratory Syncytial Virus, or RSV. Because this is a virus, antibiotics are of no help. However, it can be dangerous so always see your doctor in order for the condition to be evaluated and monitored.

Cough from bronchiolitis is similar to asthma but it usually includes fever and loss of appetite. As with a cold, the best treatment is rest, fluids and a cool-mist humidifier that is cleaned daily.

Croup

Croup is a very common childhood ailment that is often contagious. It is easy to recognize by the characteristic cough. Your child will sound like a seal barking. Other symptoms can include a low fever, high-pitched wheezing when breathing and possibly labored breathing.

Usually croup will clear up on its own in a week or so. Many parents find that cool air eases their baby's symptoms. Use a cool-mist humidifier or take your baby outside on a cool evening for a few minutes. Some parents will even slightly open the window in their child's room at night. Another method that can help is to run the shower until the bathroom gets steamy. Sit with your baby in the steam-filled bathroom for 15 to 20 minutes allowing him to sit upright while he breathes in the steam.

See a doctor or call 911 immediately if your baby struggles to breathe while he is sleeping or if he starts to turn blue. Severe cases of croup may need to be treated in the hospital with oxygen. Less severe cases may be treated with mild steroids. Consult your doctor before giving your child any fever-reducing medicine such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Don't be surprised if your child gets croup repeatedly. Some children just seem to be prone to it and tend to get it often.

The Flu

The cough that may accompany the flu is similar to when you child has a cold—a dry cough. The difference is that your child will likely have a fever, vomiting and possibly diarrhea. Like a cold, the flu is also similarly treated with fluids and rest.

If your baby refused fluids, runs a high fever of 100 degrees for three days or 103 degrees for a day, or if she is struggling to breathe seek medical help immediately. She can get dehydrated easily and she may have more serious problems.

GERD

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease, or GERD, is actually fairly common in infants. Usually it isn't serious and often they outgrow it within a year. However, there are cases that can be more severe. Symptoms include frequent cough, frequent hiccups, spitting up, poor appetite, poor sleep and irritability during feedings.

Often some simple changes can help your baby deal with GERD. Try keeping him sitting upright during feedings and don't forget to burp him. You can also elevate the head of his crib to help his food stay where it belongs when he is sleeping. Smaller feedings given more frequently can also help.

Call your doctor if you see that your child is losing weight or if he has problems swallowing. A sore throat, respiratory problems such as bronchiolitis, or sinus or ear infections are also reasons to see a doctor.

Whooping Cough

Pertussis, or whooping cough, is a very serious illness. It has been increasing in frequency since the 1980s and has been found to be transmitted to babies from their parents, who show no symptoms, in many cases.

It is characterized by loud, frequent, violent coughing spasms. Other symptoms include the tongue sticking out, bulging eyes and discoloration of the face. If your child exhibits symptoms of whooping cough, call 911 immediately. Oxygen will be needed during the coughing spasms. Your doctor may prescribe erythromycin to the entire family and you can expect it to take several months to recover.

There are many different types of coughs, some serious and some not as serious. Educate yourself so you can recognize the need for medical attention if the need should arise.

Kathleen Roberts is a freelance writer and editor as well as the mother of five children. She writes about pregnancy, parenting, gardening and natural living. Kathleen enjoys spending as much time as she can in the outdoors with her family in the Florida Keys where she enjoys scuba diving, bicycling and anything else that will allow her to interact with nature.

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Guest Apr 22, 2013 01:15:19 AM ET

My 16 month old daughter has a cough sometimes husky and other times a wet cough the cough is especially heightened at night she's has also had episodes of slight wheezing and a little deeper/faster breathing during the day no temp etc she's just been on antibiotics for chest infection took her back to doc and he said chest was all clear i'm still concerned though it just doesn't sound right help...

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Debbie Feb 21, 2013 09:27:59 PM ET

My 3 yr old daughter having chesty cough and wheeze , took her to dr still coughing . please help

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Sam Nov 2, 2012 06:04:16 PM ET

My 19week old baby boy has had a cough since he was born, he's seen various doctors, health visitors and one occasion took him to hospital. he's never had a temperature, and apart from being a sicky baby, is ok in himself. the doctor prescribed a ventolin inhaler last week as he said my baby could have asthma , but i don't think it's helped at all. his cough's getting more frequent. any ideas ? should i demand for him to be referred to a specialist?

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crystal Oct 28, 2012 10:11:11 PM ET

Catherine, coughing after eating, sign of allergies yes. most likely the food he's eating. get a new pedi, get that child a allergy test. allergy

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catherine Oct 13, 2012 03:48:42 AM ET

My 3 year old grandson has a cough but is triggered mainly when he eats something. took him to doc and she said everything is fine and it is alegies. what is your outlook on this?

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Brady Sep 19, 2012 02:01:26 AM ET

My daughter (at one year) seen 4 different doctors that said her chest was clear even after xrays. she was severely congested, had a bad dry cough, watery eyes, and post nasal drip. well, one month later, i took her to the er once again because she had all the same symptoms still that progressed execept this time she was constantly coughing and throwing up. she ate well and appeared to be just fine. she had ran high fevers for a month with the doctors telling me she was fine it was just a cold or virus. at the er 3 doctors told us her chest was clear once again. they told us to go get her xrays taken. after waiting in the er after my daughter constantly throwing up for 3 hours, the main doctor seen us and said she had walking pneumonia. i knew something wasn't right for a whole month and i'm glad that she didn't have to be hospitalized for it with walking pneumonia it takes a while before things get to the point where a child needs to be hospitalized (in our case, she had it for one month). she still had the cough weeks later and now it has possibly returned. make sure you keep looking for solutions and follow your gut if you truly believe that there is something wrong with your children.

Krystal Oct 29, 2013 01:32:24 PM ET

You're absolutely right, it's sad that some doctors don't "see" anything wrong with the child no matter how many times you bring them in. always follow your gut when it comes to your children! momma knows best

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Sakeitha Aug 1, 2012 04:55:07 AM ET

My one year old has a history of pnemonia and also has asthma. but jus recently he has had a runny nose with green mucus, a constant cough, congestion all day ,.rattling in the chest, and now vomitting. he has an appt. with the peds. but i really wanna take him to the er tonight..also he cant get any sleep at all. he took his nebulizer and has baby vapor rub but nothing seems to help.. wat should i do ???

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Krisandra Mar 22, 2012 12:42:26 AM ET

My son has a cough, sound rattly when he breathes, a fever of 100.6 and has vomitted twice within half an hour. any ideas?

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lisa Feb 23, 2012 03:42:46 AM ET

One thing my ped always says is it that it almost always sounds worse than it is. i hate to admit it, but so far, he has been right :) if the chest sounds clear per doctor, and your child's mood is ok, and they are fever free, the cough does have a tendency to linger for some time. as far as vomiting, more often than not, a toddler or younger-aged child isn't actually vomiting per se, they are coughing up mucous and that is what is making them sick/spit up. that is what happens to my kids, they gag, and what is thrown up is mucousy (sometimes including small amount of food). i am not doc, but here again, my ped says the action of coughing so hard and bringing up mucous triggers the sick feeling in toddlers, and causes spitting up/light vomiting. i hope this is helpful info to someone. as a super worrisome parent as well, i have bombarded my ped with so many questions about this stuff, i thought i'd share :)

Qasha Feb 7, 2013 11:43:56 PM ET

Exactly the same for my 15 mts old baby. the vomitting that accompany the cough is actually the mucus our little one tried very hard to get rid off. everytime she vomits, we will contain it in her toy bucket. i can clearly see the mucus , clear and thick amongst the digested milk curds and some solid foods. she's in good mood, no fever, no diarrhoea. only runny nose which is now drying up, after two weeks of difficult breathing due to the blocked nose.

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annabelle Jan 11, 2012 06:20:13 AM ET

I am on the same boat. i have 18month baby and he has been with cough on and off for 1 month now.sometimes with mucos and sometimes dry.i took him to 3 different ped but all told m e the same that the chest is clear.but its freeking me when i hear him .pls help

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