When to Be Concerned About Your Child's Cough

Boy coughing
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Coughs are often concerning to parents. They are annoying for adults but can be downright scary when our kids are coughing and we can't do anything about it. 

So, how is someone without any medical training to know if their child's cough is something to worry about or not? 

Most coughs in children are minor and don't need any treatment. But there are some that warrant a trip to the doctor or emergency room.

Frequent and Persistent Cough

If your child is coughing frequently - more than every five minutes - for over two hours, it's time to call her health care provider. This could be caused by irritation from mucus in her throat but it could also be a sign that she is having trouble breathing. Some kids that have frequent persistent coughs can benefit from breathing treatments such as an inhaler or nebulizer. 

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

Pertussis, or whooping cough, is a serious infection that can be fatal in infants. It is characterized by short fast coughing and a "whoop" sound when the person tries to take a breath. Pertussis can affect anyone but is most serious for children under 1 year old. 

Kids should get the DTaP vaccine starting at 2 months old and adults should get a booster with the TdaP, especially if you have young kids at home or are pregnant. These vaccines protect against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis.

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 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 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 (not in the water) for 10-15 minutes. This often relieves the coughing and stridor. If it does, you can go back to sleep and contact your child's health care provider in the morning. If it does not help, seek medical attention right away. 

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 health care provider or seek medical attention right away. If she does have asthma, follow your asthma action plan

Taking Action

Kids under 6 should not have any over the counter cold medications, including cough medicine. These medications don't work in kids and have side effects that can be serious. Even in older kids, cough medicines are usually discouraged. 

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

Children over 3 can use cough drops but younger kids should avoid them 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 his health care provider for advice. Don't use over the counter cold medicine unless your child's doctor has recommended it and if you notice any other signs of difficulty breathing, seek medical attention immediately. 

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Article Sources
  • "Coughing". KidsHealth Sep 15. The Nemours Foundation. 25 Feb 16.