Baby Cough and Chest Congestion Home Remedies

Coughs and congestion are common in babies and toddlers. But many over-the-counter cough medications aren't safe for them. Natural home remedies may help make your child comfortable, and several of them can be safe and effective.

This article looks at what causes coughs and congestion in babies, home remedies to try, and when you should get medical help instead.

Mother with ear thermometer checking coughing child’s temperature

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Causes of Cough and Chest Congestion in Babies

Coughing and chest congestion in babies can be caused by:

  • Viruses
  • Bacteria
  • Post-nasal drip 

A virus just needs to run its course. Bacterial infection may require prescription antibiotics or steroids.

The Cold and Bronchitis

The common cold and bronchitis are common viral infections that make babies cough. They usually come on quickly and resolve on their own.

Bronchitis occurs when the bronchi (airways) become inflamed and make mucus. Your child then coughs to break up the mucus and get it moving. Sometimes, bronchitis is bacterial and needs antibiotics.

Your baby's cough may also be due to bronchiolitis. This occurs when smaller airways (bronchioles) tighten and make it hard to breathe. 

Chronic Cough Causes

A persistent cough that doesn't seem to get better may have a chronic cause, such as: '

Croup

Croup is caused by inflammation in the upper airway. It's usually due to a virus. Fairly common in young children, it often resolves on its own.

Croup causes a tight, barky cough. Your child may also be short of breath. In rare cases, croup can be bacterial and require prescription medication. So check with your pediatrician if you think your child has croup. 

Whooping Cough

Whooping cough (pertussis) is a bacterial infection. It typically causes long coughing fits followed by a deep breath. That breath makes the “whooping” sound the condition is named for.

Other symptoms may be:

  • A runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Fever

Pertussis is highly contagious, so be sure your child is vaccinated.

Post-Nasal Drip

A baby’s cough may be caused by post-nasal drip. That's when mucus draining down the throat stimulates the cough reflex.

Post-nasal drip is likely if your baby only coughs while lying down.

Recap

Viral causes of cough may be the common cold, bronchitis, bronchiolitis, or croup. Some causes of bronchitis and croup are bacterial. Whooping cough is bacterial. Post-nasal drip can trigger cough when a baby is lying down.

Home Remedies

Rest and time are usually the best medicine for a baby or toddler's cough. Try to get them to rest a lot while the virus runs its course. 

Coughs can be uncomfortable, though, and they may keep your baby from sleeping well. But most cough and cold medicines aren't safe for kids under 6. Home remedies can be a safe way to help ease their symptoms. 

Humidity

Humidity helps a cough in two ways.

  • First, it helps hydrate the sinus tissues. Dryness can lead to more mucus and a worse cough.
  • Second, it keeps your child’s mucus thin. This makes it easier to cough up.

A cool-mist humidifier running for a few hours each day can be a big help.

Don't use a humidifier around the clock. Constantly damp surfaces can grow mold. Empty and clean the humidifier every day to prevent bacterial buildup.

Breathing in steam is a good way to break up mucus and ease a cough. Run a hot shower and sit next it with your child. Have them breathe in the steam. Keep them entertained with a game, book, or other calm activity so they'll stay there for a while.

Hydration

Keeping your child hydrated also thins mucus and prevents dry tissues. Good hydration options include:

  • Water
  • Broth
  • Juice

Avoid orange juice as the acidity can irritate their throat. Milk isn't a good choice because it can increase mucus production. 

To know whether your child is well hydrated, pay attention to their urine. Frequent bathroom trips and light-colored urine are good indicators. In babies, look for frequent wet diapers. 

Do not give honey to a child under 1 year of age. It won't help with a cough and may cause infant botulism (food poisoning). 

Suction 

A bulb syringe can help remove mucus from your child's nose. That can prevent nasal and sinus congestion. To use one:

  • First, use saline nasal drops to help break up the mucus.
  • Then squeeze the air out of the bulb.
  • Place the tip gently into your child’s nostril.
  • Slowly release your grip on the bulb.
  • As air re-enters, it pulls mucus into the bulb.

Continue until you no longer see mucus coming out. Stop right away if you notice blood in the mucus or nose. 

Recap

A humidifier, good hydration, and a bulb syringe are safe and effective ways to clear your baby's congestion and ease a cough.

When to Call a Healthcare Provider

Symptoms that always warrant a call to your child's healthcare provider include a cough plus:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid, shallow breathing
  • Working hard to breathe
  • Wheezing or loud breathing
  • Coughing up blood
  • A blue tint to their lips, nail beds, or tongue
  • Any fever, if under 3 months old
  • A temperature over 102 degrees Fahrenheit, if over 3 months old
  • An inability to eat or drink
  • Weakness
  • Irritability

You know your child best. Call your healthcare provider anytime you’re concerned about them.

Summary

A baby or toddler may cough due to viral illness (the common cold, bronchitis, bronchiolitis, or croup) or bacterial infection (whooping cough, and some cases of bronchitis and croup). Post-nasal drip can make them cough when lying down.

Home remedies include a humidifier, proper hydration, and a bulb syringe. Call your healthcare provider if your child has concerning symptoms.

A Word From Verywell

It's scary to hear your baby cough. Remember that it's common and will likely go away before long. Do your best to make your little one comfortable.

And never hesitate to call their healthcare provider if symptoms are concerning, get worse, or you just feel like something is wrong. They can tell you what course of action is best and put your mind at ease.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What can I give my baby for congestion?

    Cold medicine is not safe for children under 4. Saline drops and a bulb syringe can help clear their nasal passages.

    If your baby has a fever, you can give them the infant's or children's formulation of Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Motrin (ibuprofen). 

  • How can I relieve congestion in a baby?

    You can help relieve congestion in a baby with a humidifier, saline drops, a bulb syringe, and good hydration.

  • Can I use Vicks VapoRub on a baby?

    No, do not use Vicks VapoRub on children under 2. Vicks makes a special formula for babies, Vicks Baby Rub. It's safe for babies over 3 months old.

  • How do you suction congestion from a baby?

    Use a bulb syringe. First, squeeze the air out of the bulb and then place the tip in one nostril. Release the bulb to pull the mucus out of the nose. If the mucus is too thick to suction, thin it with a few drops of saline. 

    Doing this before meals can help a congested baby eat better. However, suctioning more than four times a day can irritate the nasal passages.

  • Can a baby suffocate from a stuffy nose?

    It's rare but possible. To help your baby breathe better, hold them upright. If they still struggle or have any other warning signs, get immediate medical attention.

    Warning signs include:

    • Blue tint to lips, nail beds, or tongue
    • Coughing up blood 
    • Labored breathing
    • Rapid, shallow breathing
    • Wheezing or loud breathing
8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Carrie Madormo, RN, MPH
Carrie Madormo, RN, MPH, is a health writer with over a decade of experience working as a registered nurse. She has practiced in a variety of settings including pediatrics, oncology, chronic pain, and public health.