There are many reasons children develop a cough, and it can be difficult for parents to determine what is causing the cough and when to see the pediatrician.
Typically, a child's cough is nothing to worry about. Every year parents can expect their children to get several colds, especially during the fall and winter months, which can result in coughing as a side effect. But there are times when it is important to call your child's doctor.
To help parents understand the severity of their child's cough and what it may indicate, Michael Lee, M.D., pediatrician with Children's Health℠ and Professor at UT Southwestern, shares his advice: "As a general rule, if your child has a cough that is getting progressively worse and/or lasting longer than five to seven days without improvement, it's a good idea to have them seen by a medical professional."
What's causing my child's cough?
Here are eight common causes of a child's cough and signs it's time to see a pediatrician.
The common cold often produces a wet, productive-sounding cough with mucus or phlegm behind it.
Call your pediatrician if: Your child's voice becomes hoarse and has a barking, productive cough. If your child has a cold, specific medications are not needed. Keep your child well hydrated, have them blow their nose (suction nose for infants) and rest as needed. Your child can continue to go to school as long as there is no fever present for 24 hours without medication. Cough and cold medications are not routinely recommended for children.
Seasonal allergies typically do not affect a child under the age of 2-3 years old. Symptoms of seasonal allergies include itchy, watery eyes, runny nose, cough and congestion, sneezing and sometimes a sore throat. However, allergies do not usually cause fatigue, body aches or a fever.
Call your pediatrician if: Your child's allergy symptoms persist. Your child's doctor may recommend or prescribe allergy medications depending on your child's age and symptoms. If your child is already taking medication for seasonal allergies and their symptoms persist, contact their pediatrician.
Respiratory syncytial virus, commonly known as RSV, is a specific virus that has similar symptoms to the common cold, but it can be a challenging and even life-threatening virus in infants or young children.
Call your pediatrician if: Your child has labored breathing that is hard and fast. Difficulty breathing may not be something you hear, but something you see. You may notice your child's chest sinking in and their ribs coming and going with each breath. If you see any of these symptoms, contact your child's doctor immediately.
The most common cause of bronchiolitis is the RSV virus, but other viruses may cause the same symptoms. Bronchiolitis is mainly seen in children 2 years old and younger and causes wheezing and difficulty breathing.
Call your pediatrician if: A dry cough evolves into clicking, bubbling or rattling when your child inhales. Additionally, if your child is having labored breathing, it may be time to call your child's doctor.
Children will experience Pneumonia symptoms differently than adults, and the symptoms tend to be very subtle, but pneumonia is typically accompanied by a high fever. Signs will also vary with age and the cause of the pneumonia.
Call your pediatrician if: your child has a frequent cough with high fever and/or rapid or difficult breathing.
Asthma is the most common chronic disease of childhood, affecting almost one in 10 children – including more than 156,000 in North Texas, according to the Beyond ABC report. Asthma attacks can come and go and can be triggered by a number of factors, including exercise, cold air, excitement, laughing, roughhousing and exposure to environmental factors, like cigarette smoke and air pollution.
Call your pediatrician if: Your child's cough is accompanied by wheezing, often a high-pitched, whistle-like sound heard typically when exhaling.
Croup occurs when the upper airway (nose and upper throat) swells, which causes a child to work harder to breathe. Croup typically occurs in fall and winter and affects boys more than girls. A child can have croup at any age, but it happens more often in children under the age of 5.
Call your pediatrician if: Coughs associated with croup have a distinctive "barking" sound and are often accompanied by a high-pitched sound when inhaling. If you see any of these symptoms, contact your child's doctor immediately.
Pertussis, also called whooping cough, is a highly contagious illness of the respiratory mucous membrane. Caused by bacteria, pertussis is easily spread through infected coughs and sneezes, but can be prevented by a series of vaccines.
Call your pediatrician if: Your child's cough is marked by a series of short, violent coughs sometimes followed by a high-pitched intake of breath that sounds like whoop.
Could my child's cough be COVID‑19?
COVID‑19 is a contagious respiratory virus that can cause a wide range of symptoms, including a cough and fever. Anyone can have mild to severe illness due to COVID-19, including children. It is not possible to tell the difference between COVID-19 and a cold or upper respiratory infection without testing. Because of that, it is best to get tested for COVID-19 to rule it out. If your child tests positive for COVID-19, they should isolate themselves from those who are not infected. The best way to prevent COVID-19 is for everyone who is eligible to get the COVID‑19 vaccine.
Call your pediatrician if: Your child has a fever or chills, a cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, muscle or body aches, a headache, loss of taste or smell, a sore throat, congestion or runny nose, nausea/vomiting or diarrhea. Your child should be tested for COVID‑19 if they are experiencing a combination of any of these symptoms, especially if they have been exposed to someone who has COVID‑19.
How to help a child's cough
No matter the cause of your child's cough, here are a few cough treatments you can try at home:
1. Increase fluids. Increasing fluid intake can help soothe a sore throat and make the mucus in your child's lungs easier to cough up.
2. Rest in an upright position. Plenty of rest will help your child regain their health, but congestion may make it difficult to sleep. Try elevating the head of the bed by placing a few pillows under the mattress to help your child rest more easily.
3. Consider adding some humidity. A warm bath or shower may help ease your child's breathing, and a cool-mist humidifier in their room overnight may also help.
4. Eliminate irritants. These can include chemical fumes, cigarette smoke and small particles.
Most importantly, give over-the-counter medications with care. Cough suppressants can often do more harm than good and are not recommended for children. However, children may need a dose of over-the-counter medication like acetaminophen for pain or fever. Follow directions carefully. Always contact your child's doctor before giving any over-the-counter medication to a child younger than 6. Learn more about home remedies for cough in kids.
If you're concerned about your child's cough, call your pediatrician right away, especially if your child is working hard to breathe.