An Overview of Croup

That's not a seal barking, it's your kid

child coughing

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If you are a parent, chances are you've been rousted out of bed at least once by the barking cough of croup. Croup is a catch-all term for childhood inflammation and swelling of the area of the throat that includes the vocal chords. The swelling blocks airflow through the windpipe (trachea) and triggers coughing that sounds a lot like a seal (or for those who live in the California Bay Area, a sea lion).

Sometimes it might make sense to take your child to the doctor (see below), but probably not. Croup is usually mild and will go away on its own in most cases.


There are only two symptoms of croup: a barking cough and stridor. Stridor is a low-pitched sound that goes with breathing. It comes from swelling in the upper airway near the vocal chords. In severe cases with very pronounced stridor (very rare) the patient can exhibit shortness of breath.


Usually, one of several viruses cause croup. Not all kids who catch these viruses will get croup; some kids will simply have cold symptoms. About 2 out of every 100 kids get croup each year. Bacteria can cause croup also, but it's much less common. Since it's probably caused by a virus, antibiotics won't help and that's the best tool your doc has for the common croup.


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There are plenty of home remedies out on the internet for croup, but most of them don't have a lot of actual scientific evidence to support there use. Here are the most common home remedies for croup and whether or not they are known to work:

Humid Air

Many healthcare providers suggest moist or humid air—breathing steamy air from a hot shower or opening the windows on a cool night, for example. But no evidence shows that moist air helps at all. Using the shower is awkward, but feel free to try a humidifier. It won't hurt.

Snuggle and Sooth

One theory holds that it isn't the moist air which helps kids with croup, rather the soothing presence of mom or dad. When a parent sits in a steamy bathroom holding a poor, barking child close and comforting, the croup goes away. Try skipping the shower and just hold Junior the next time he starts barking; he might feel better.


The best advice for any form of viral infection is to push the fluids. Staying hydrated helps the body to fight infections.

Natural Cough Syrup

Honey has shown some success in suppressing nighttime coughing. The study wasn't actually aimed at croup but honey—in kids older than a year—isn't going to hurt them and might help the cough. Besides, it's the best-tasting medicine they'll ever get. On the other hand, cough syrup probably won't help and cough medicine for kids is not recommended.

Time is the only sure-fire home remedy for croup. As long as kids aren't worsening, they will eventually get better. If your child has that barking cough for more than 3 days, it's time to see if the doctor can help.

When to Go to the Doctor

If croup is severely uncomfortable, kids could benefit from seeing a doctor. The doctor may be able to prescribe steroids or inhaled epinephrine to help with the swelling. Sometimes, croup can lead to a dangerously swollen throat and windpipe. In those cases, call 911 or go straight to the emergency department. Take your child to the doctor or call 911 if she has any of the following:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Stridor (loud raspy breathing that sounds like a cross between Darth Vader and Jason from the Halloween movies)
  • Confusion
  • Is abnormally tired
  • Changing colors (getting pale, purple or blue)
  • Fever over 102 F

If your child suddenly develops stridor or a barking cough but hasn't shown any other signs of being sick, it's time to go to the doctor. If a barking kid starts scratching or complaining of itching—or if redness or hives appear—call 911 immediately.

A Word from Verywell

Croup is an extremely common condition, but croup isn't the only thing that causes the barking coughs. Croup-like coughing and stridor can also come from stuff stuck in your child's airway as well as severe allergic reactions. Coins, erasers, marbles, Legos and other little objects have been found in the airways of otherwise healthy kids who show up to the emergency department barking away. If you're worried about your child and aren't sure whether he should go to the doctor—go ahead and take him. Trust your instincts. When it comes to our kids, our guts are usually right.

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Article Sources
  • Bjornson, Candice and David Johnson. "Croup in the Paediatric Emergency Department." Paediatr Child Health. July 2007.
  • Fitzgerald, D.A. and H.A. Kilham. "Croup: Assessment and Evidence-Based Management." Med J Aust
  • Johnson DW. Croup.BMJ Clinical Evidence. 2014;2014:0321.