When to See a Doctor for a Child's Cough

Coughs with certain characteristics may require medical attention

Coughs are often concerning to parents. Most coughs in children are minor and don’t require any treatment. However, there are some that may warrant a trip to the doctor or even the emergency room, from the cough that doesn't seem to ever go away to one accompanied by wheezing or barking, and others. Most doctors advise parents to particularly pay attention to any coughing that might happen at night, after exercise, and during allergy season.

If any of these seven types of coughs seem to describe what your child is experiencing, it's time to get a medical evaluation, especially if symptoms are lasting longer than 10 days.

Frequent and Persistent Cough

If your child is coughing frequently—more than every five minutes—for over two hours, call the doctor. This could be caused by irritation from mucus in the throat or it could also be a sign of breathing troubles.

A child who has frequent persistent coughs should be seen by a pediatrician to see if the child might have asthma and could benefit from breathing treatments with an inhaler or nebulizer.

Short and Fast Cough (With a "Whooping" Sound)

Pertussis, commonly known as whooping cough, is a serious infection that can be fatal in infants. It is often accompanied by a fast cough and a "whoop" sound when taking a breath. Pertussis can affect anyone, but it is most serious for children younger than a year old.

Note that mild cases of pertussis often aren't accompanied by whooping cough, particularly in adults who spread the illness to vulnerable individuals like infants. Infants with pertussis don't always have a cough and may just present with apnea and cyanosis.

The best way to prevent whooping cough is with the pertussis vaccine. It is usually given as a combination vaccination that includes protection against two other serious bacterial diseases, diphtheria, and tetanus. The combination vaccine can be given starting at 2 months old and adults should get a booster, especially if they have young kids at home or are pregnant.

Productive Cough

A cough caused by mucus is usually considered “productive,” as is the case with the common cold. However, if you child has persistent green or yellow mucus with coughing, sneezing and/or blowing their nose, visit the pediatrician to determine if he or she has developed a sinus or respiratory infection.

Dry Nighttime Cough

If your child has had an annoying on-and-off cough that gets worse at night and with activity, call the pediatrician. It is possible your child may have asthma, a chronic condition where the airways of the lungs to become inflamed and narrow. There may also be excess mucus, which might explain your child’s coughing.

Call 911 if your child is having trouble breathing or becomes unable to speak, eat, or drink.

Loud and Wet Cough

If your child has a cold and more than a week has passed; his cough is wet, loud, phlegmy, and, simply put, gross; and the child’s breathing seems faster than normal, call the pediatrician. These are all signs of pneumonia, an infection caused by a virus or bacteria that invades the lungs and causes them to fill with fluid. 

Pneumonia can be diagnosed with a physical exam and an X-ray. Bacterial pneumonia is treated with antibiotics, while viral pneumonia just needs to run its course. Pneumonia is usually treated at home, but severe symptoms may require a hospital stay.

Barky Cough

A child's cough that sounds like a seal or small dog barking is a sign of croup. This illness is most common in kids under age 8 and usually starts or worsens at night. Children may wake during the night with a barky cough and a loud whistling sound when they breathe in, called stridor. 

These sounds can be scary for kids and parents, but they don't always warrant a trip to the emergency room. If your child wakes up with a barky cough, you can take him into the bathroom and turn the hot water on in the shower. Sit in the steamy room for 10 to 15 minutes.

This often relieves the coughing and stridor. If it does, you can go back to sleep and contact the pediatrician in the morning. If it does not help, take your child to the nearest emergency room.

Wheezing Cough

People often confuse the term wheezing with the sound kids make when they breathe and are congested. If it sounds like you can hear mucus when your child is breathing, there probably isn't anything to be concerned about. True wheezing is a high-pitched whistling sound when breathing out (exhaling).

If your child is coughing and wheezing without any history of asthma, contact her healthcare provider or seek medical attention right away. If your child does have asthma, follow your family's asthma action plan.

Taking Action

Kids under 6 should not be given over-the-counter cold medicines, especially cough medicine. These medications don't work for kids and side effects can be serious and, in some cases, life-threatening. Even in older kids, cough medicines are discouraged. 

Using a humidifier at night can help with a cough because it puts extra moisture in the air and soothes irritation in the airways.

Older children can be given cough drops. They should be avoided for younger children because they are a choking hazard.

Cool drinks or popsicles may help soothe an irritated throat as well.

A Word From Verywell

If you are concerned about your child's cough, contact your family's pediatrician for advice. Don't use over-the-counter cold medicine unless your child's doctor has recommended it. If you notice any signs of difficulty breathing, seek medical attention immediately. 

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources