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Decoding the Cough in Babies & Toddlers

Kathleen Roberts |10, March 2008


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 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.


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.

Related Articles

Does Your Baby Have Gastroesophageal Reflux (GERD)

Treating Baby's Cold or Flu at Home Safely

Cold and Flu Survival Guide for Parents

How to Sooth Your Crying Baby

Mom's 2014 Cold and Flu Survival Guide


Showing 1 - 10 out of 40 Comments
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Noella May 11, 2018 08:18:11 AM ET

My 4 yr old is having these coughing fits and just puked thick stuff. I took him to the doc yesterday, just a common cold, no ear infections. But wasn't puking then. Should I take him to e.r or is it just mucus coming out?

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Cai Sep 26, 2016 04:22:17 PM ET

Every time my 3 year old daughter coughs then vomits, blood starts to ooze out of her right nostril, red thick blood. My mom told me that the coughing might have caused a strain in her throat and nostrils and it triggers the blood that's coming out of her nose. When I asked my kid, she's not feeling any pain in any part of her head. And she is still very active. But I am really worried.

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Angela Aug 15, 2016 08:46:50 PM ET

My daughter Kailyn has been coughing almost 2 months now. She coughs a lot in the morning when she first gets up, she coughs at night when she sleeps. We went to her pediatrician and they say that it comes with the territory. When she goes to daycare, that it's you know it's hard but it is good that she's getting it man vs. When she gets older and they prescribed her his cough medicine, that is not doing any good. We just did a refill last week. She is still coughing. Some times she has a runny nose, sometimes it's dry. She has sneezing occasionally. She doesn't have a fever. She is vomiting again and I am a bit concerned. Do I need to take her to a specialist? Your opinion or comments would be greatly appreciated, thanks.

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kayla Mar 18, 2015 12:02:38 AM ET

My 15 month old she has red blood shot eyes, her nose is running, and every time she goes out it gets worse. I don't know what it is, and her doctor won't do any tests.

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Gothe Mar 6, 2015 01:36:18 PM ET

My 17 Month old daughter is coughing at night only. No coughing when she is awake. She has had 100 degree fever for last 3 Days. Now, no fever or cold or coughing when she is awake. She is coughing only when she sleeps and only after a snoring like sound. Please suggest or advise.

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Melissa Nov 7, 2014 02:46:33 AM ET

My 23 month old son has not a yellow mucus in the corners of his eyes, it's green. I'm thinking it's a sinus infection. He also has the flu. Now, the green gunk is quite disturbing to me as I haven't seen this before, but the doctor doesn't see it as concerning? Help please

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JonahNAloha Aug 27, 2014 09:30:29 PM ET

Sometimes what the nebulizer doesn't do the prednisone will do. My kids have very bad asthma and it always starts off from a runny nose. Keep your son in a cool area away from heat because heat triggers there asthma, dust is also a big factor in asthmatic children. Even if you have to give him the nebulizer every 20 minutes till you see comfort do so because it will do no harm but opening up the airways. Hope he gets better.

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Kasey Jun 2, 2014 11:43:24 AM ET

My 6 month old has a dry cough sometimes, and other times it's barky. He has neon green gunk oozing from his eyes and matting them together at night. He has neon green snot coming from his nose. He has a fever of 102.3 rectally. He threw up once and is very restless. Can someone tell me what they think it may be??

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Lace May 28, 2014 08:12:32 PM ET

My 6 month old daughter had a fever of 101, cough, watery eyes, runny nose. Doctor said to give her Benadyrl and Motrin. All her symptoms cleared up in a few days but she still has a rattle in her chest. Nothing else is going on and she's eating fine and playing. Help!?

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Guest May 2, 2014 09:13:59 AM ET

My baby is 19 months old. Since 5 months, I am going to and from the doctor. He shows all the signs of asthma but has not been diagnosed yet. The pediatrician says it's not asthma, and now almost a month and still with cough. It relaxed and within one or two days it goes serious again. I don't know what to do. Please help.

Guest Jun 13, 2014 03:39:40 PM ET

Try a different doctor, or get a referral for a specialist but definitely get a second opinion.

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