Calls about coughs are among the most frequent received on our nurse line. It’s important to know when coughs are serious, and require a visit to our office vs. when they are not serious and can be managed at home. As always, if you have questions about your child, please call our office. (The following is excerpted in large part from UpToDate, www.uptodate.com)
What is a cough? — A cough is an important reflex that helps clear out the body’s airways (the branching tubes that carry air within the lungs). Coughing also helps keep people from breathing things into the airways and lungs that could cause problems.
It is normal for children to cough once in a while. But sometimes, a cough is a symptom of an illness or condition.
Coughs are called “dry” if they don’t bring up mucus, and “wet” if they do. The sound of your child’s cough can be different depending on if it is wet or dry. Some coughs are mild, but others are severe. A severe cough can make it hard to breathe.
What causes a cough? — The most common causes of a cough in children are:
- Infections of the airways or lungs (including the common cold)
- Asthma – This is a lung condition that can make it hard to breathe.
- Other lung problems, including conditions that some children are born with
- Coughing out of habit – This type of cough usually goes away when a child is sleeping.
- Having an object stuck in an airway
Should my child see a doctor or nurse? — See the doctor or nurse right away if your child:
- Is younger than 4 months old
- Is having trouble breathing, has noisy breathing, or is breathing very fast
- Is coughing up blood, or yellow or green mucus
- Refuses to drink anything for a long time
- Has a fever and is not acting like him- or herself
- Is coughing so hard that he or she vomits
- Has had the cough for more than 2 weeks and is not getting any better
- Gets a cough after he or she choked on food or another object, even if he or she choked on the object days or weeks ago
Is there anything I can do to help get rid of my child’s cough? — Yes. If your child’s cough is from a cold, the croup, or another infection, you can:
- Have him or her drink lots of fluids.
- Use a humidifier in his or her bedroom.
- Sit in the bathroom with him or her while you run hot water in the shower to make steam.
- Children over 1 year of age can use honey for cough treatment. Have them try a teaspoon of honey in warm herbal (no caffeine) tea- best since the warm liquid also helps. If they don’t like tea, try honey on toast or from a spoon.
There are certain things you should NOT do:
- Do NOT give over-the-counter cough and cold medicines to children, especially if they are younger than 6 years old. Cough and cold medicines are not likely to help, and they can cause serious problems in young children.
- Do NOT giveaspirinto children younger than 18 years old. Aspirin can cause a life-threatening condition called Reye syndrome in young people.
How is a cough treated? — Treatment depends on the cause of your child’s cough. For example:
- Some infections are treated with antibiotic medicines. If an infection is caused by bacteria, doctors can treat it with antibiotics. An infection caused by a virus (such as the common cold) cannot be treated with antibiotics.
- Asthma is treated with medicines that a child usually breathes into his or her lungs.
- If your child has an object stuck in his or her airway, the doctor can do bronchoscopy to look for it and remove it.
Doctors do not usually prescribe medicines that quiet a cough to children. These medicines don’t usually work well, and they can have serious side effects in children.