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What Causes Coughing in Children?

What Causes Coughing in Children?

Coughing is one of the most common symptoms of an unwell child. What causes coughing in children, and how can parents care for them at home? Find out here.

Acute vs Chronic Cough

To better explain what causes coughing in children, it’s best to first discuss the difference between acute and chronic coughing.

A child who experiences repeated bouts of coughing in 1 month or less is said to have an acute cough. On the other hand, coughs that last for more than 4 weeks are considered chronic.

The causes between these two kinds of coughing differ. That’s why parents should monitor how long their child experiences the symptom.

Possible Causes of Coughing in Children

How do you describe your child’s cough? Its characteristic and “sound” can help you determine the possible cause.

Sudden Coughs

Sudden coughs could indicate that your child swallowed food or water (or even a tiny object) in the “wrong pipe.” In this case, coughing helps clear the airway; this may also persist for a minute or so because of throat irritation.

If your child’s cough doesn’t improve or they develop difficulty breathing, bring them to the doctor.

Another important reminder: if you suspect that something is “blocking” your child’s airway, don’t attempt to remove it with your fingers as you may end up pushing the object further.

“Barking” Cough

Does your child’s cough sound like a bark? If that’s the case, then it could be croup, a respiratory infection that blocks the airway, causing the characteristic “barking” cough.

The good news is croup brings about acute coughs that last for less than a week.

Please note that besides viral infection, allergies and temperature changes can also trigger croup. The coughing may start suddenly in the middle of the night, which causes the parents to panic.

Cough with Wheezing Sounds

If your child’s cough is accompanied by wheezing (high-pitched sound during exhalation), it could indicate that something is stuck in their airway, or they have an infection that causes swelling.

The causes of cough with wheezing vary, from acute bronchiolitis, pneumonia, or chronic asthma.

Wet or Dry Cough with Fever or Cold

And finally, we have wet or dry coughs with fever or cold (or both).

If your child experiences this kind of cough, chances are he or she has developed a viral respiratory infection, most likely the common cold.

Reports say that kids often have about 8 viral respiratory infections per year. Other symptoms include a runny nose, nasal congestion, watery eyes, and sneezing.

Chronic Cough

Now that we have a better idea of what causes acute coughing in children, let’s briefly tackle chronic cough.

The causes of chronic cough in children vary. It could be asthma, exposure to irritants such as tobacco smoke, rhinitis, or sinusitis. Come to think of it, even healthy kids who recently had viral respiratory infections may develop coughs that last for more than 4 weeks.

If your child has a chronic cough, the best thing to do is bring them to the doctor.

My Child Has a Cough, What Can I Do?

Treatment for coughing depends on its cause. For instance, if it’s asthma, your child may need medications (inhaler or steroids). If they have bacterial pneumonia, the doctor will give them antibiotic therapy.

Antibiotics won’t work if your child has a viral respiratory infection such as the common cold; however, they may still receive supportive treatment such as oxygen therapy or bronchodilators (medicines that expand the airway) as needed.

For an otherwise healthy child, these home remedies may be enough:

  • As much as possible, eliminate airway irritants such as cigarette smoke in the area where your child stays.
  • Give them plenty of fluids; avoid sodas or orange juice as they may irritate the throat and trigger coughing.
  • Do not give your child over-the-counter cough medicines unless you get a doctor’s approval.
  • A cool-mist humidifier may help your child sleep at night.
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons of honey 30 minutes before bedtime might also be helpful. Parents also sometimes use lagundi.
  • For croup, you can consider steam inhalation.

what causes coughing in children

When to call the doctor

Most acute coughing cases go away with home remedies seeing that the most common cause is a viral respiratory infection. However, parents should keep a close watch on the following red flags, which indicate that they need to bring their child to the doctor:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Bluish tinge on lips and fingernails (indicates lack of oxygen)
  • Whooping cough, which could point out pertussis, a highly contagious respiratory disease that can be prevented through vaccination.
  • Coughing up blood
  • Has wheezing
  • Has stridor or the musical sound upon inhalation
  • A high temperature of 38 C or higher for 3 days or more (for children aged 2 and up)

For infants 3 months old or younger, coughing for more than a few hours needs medical attention.

Prevention

The best way to prevent coughing is to eliminate what causes it in children. For respiratory viral infection (flu and common cold), encourage your child to frequently wash their hands and avoid touching their faces, particularly their eyes and nose.

Additionally, reduce your child’s exposure to irritants such as cigarette smoke and other forms of air pollution.

Learn more about the Signs of an Unwell Child here.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Picture of the author
Medical reviewed by Hello Doctor Medical Panel
Written by Lorraine Bunag, R.N.
Updated Feb 16
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