Home Your medical guide Why does my child cough? Plus 20 more questions answered

Why does my child cough? Plus 20 more questions answered

written by Vidya Sury August 3, 2016
20 questions you always wanted to ask about your child's cough Vidya Sury 1

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If you have or know a child with a cough, you know the frustration that comes with it. Your doctor has prescribed medication, and you know you’re doing your best, but that does not mean you have no questions, especially if your child is a toddler!

Here are the answers to 20 frequently asked questions about cough.

1.     My child is coughing a lot. Is that normal?

It is common for even healthy normal children. In fact, most children who are under five years of age, experience at least four respiratory tract infections a year. These are usually colds with coughs that last between one and two weeks.   No need to worry if your child’s cold and cough lasts for up to four weeks.  You may not even need a doctor unless you notice other symptoms.

2.     So when should I see a doctor?

If your child has a cough and has difficulty with breathing, accompanied by nausea, vomiting and high fever with temperature over 100.5 °F, take her to a doctor. Check to see if she’s choking on something – maybe a small toy, or food and get medical help right away. Generally a cough that is better in less than four weeks shouldn’t be cause for worry, but more than that definitely warrants seeing the doctor. If the cough is a symptom of something else, an early diagnosis can make all the difference.

3.     Is coughing harmful for my child?

Don’t we all worry over this? By itself, coughing is okay and even beneficial. When excess  mucus and foreign stuff threatens to enter the lungs, the body protects the lungs by triggering cough to keep them out.  The foreign stuff or mucus irritates nerve endings in the respiratory tract and this initiates cough.  But if your baby suffers from whooping cough, she may not be able to cough properly and that is not safe, so see a doctor right away.

4.     Can coughing damage my child’s lungs?

In healthy children, coughing alone does not damage the lungs.

5.     Can my child play when she has a cough?

If there are no other health issues, your child can play as usual. In fact, it is good exercise for her. Don’t worry if she seems to cough more while playing.

6.     Can others in the family catch my child’s cough?

Usually no. But there are instances where a cough can be infectious. For example, someone with tuberculosis or whooping cough can expel an infectious spray while coughing. If you have children with a weak immune system suffering from HIV/AIDS or receiving treatment for another ailment such as cancer, do keep them away from a child who is coughing.

7.     Can a cough make my child choke?

In a healthy child, no. But in babies with whooping cough, or children whose normal airway protective mechanism is not functioning, coughing can cause choking.

8.     Can coughing be a cause for SIDS – Sudden Infant Death Syndrome?

If your child has no other health issues, coughing will not cause SIDS.

9.     Why is my child coughing?

There are many reasons for a cough, the most common being a post viral cough. This is the sort that continues for 1-4 weeks after a cold or upper respiratory infection. There are conditions that can cause a chronic cough, that is, a cough that lasts more than 4 weeks. See a doctor if your child’s cough continues for more than 4 weeks or if your child has difficulty breathing, high fever or appears to be choking on something. One of the common reasons for breathing difficulty is asthma.

10.   But how do I know my child’s cough is because of asthma?

The easy way is: if your child has no shortness of breath or wheezing with her daily activities, she’s unlikely to have asthma. In fact, most of the time, children’s cough is not because of asthma. If your doctor has diagnosed your child with asthma and the medication is not making the cough better, your child probably doesn’t have asthma. Even if the cough gets better, it need not mean your child has asthma. Your doctor will monitor her and check to see if the cough returns without the medication. If it does return after the medication is stopped, your child might have asthma. Your doctor is the best judge of this.

11.     Can my child cough because of GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease)?

While GERD causes cough in adults, in children, it is more likely that something else is triggering that cough. For example, smoke or pediatric bronchitis. Cigarette smoke is especially harmful and causes irritation and inflammation of the airways.

12.     Can allergies cause cough in my child?

Yes, allergies can cause cough but that’s not the only cause. Your doctor may prescribe allergy medication for a couple of weeks to check if the cough improves. But if it continues after the medication, the allergy may not be responsible for the cough.

13.      What is croup?

Croup is a common upper respiratory illness in children caused by a viral infection. It is often accompanied by a bark like cough and a high-pitched sound when the child struggles to breathe, depending on how severe the croup is. The barking cough can also be due to tracheomalacia, an abnormality of the main airway.

14.      How will the doctor diagnose my child’s cough?

For coughs that last beyond 4 weeks, your doctor may advise a chest x-ray. If the child is 5 years and above, a spirometry test or lung function test will measure how much air she can breathe in and blow out. Depending on the findings of this test and symptoms, your doctor may prescribe more tests and refer you to a chest specialist or pulmonologist.

15.       How can I help my child when she’s coughing?

Keep her away from smokers, smoke and other triggers like wood smoke or the fireplace. Tobacco smoke is one of the main triggers of cough in children. You can also approach a doctor to find out what is the cause for your child coughing.

16.        Is it okay to treat cough with over the counter medication?

Over the counter medication is not a good idea especially for children as there’s a possibililty of making the cough worse. For children less than 1 year old, definitely no. Also, never give your child the same medication prescribed for an adult since an adult’s response to medication is very different from a child’s. Medication for children is always specific to the child’s condition.

17.         How can I help my child sleep when she has a cough?

Menthol rubs are soothing and can help sleep. Some people find rubbing Vicks Vaporub on the soles of the feet also reduces coughing. If your child coughs in her sleep, do not wake her up. Avoid non-prescription sleep medication.

18.         Will my child have to take antibiotics to treat her cough?

For wet coughs with thick mucus that lasts longer than 3 weeks, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to treat the infection causing it, but for dry coughs that are less than 3 weeks old, antibiotics are not used.

19.         Are teenagers given the same treatment as adults when they have a cough?

If your child is 14 years or older, her cough treatment is similar to an adult’s. For children under 14 years, the prescription is usually specific to the child’s condition and needs. Children’s ailments are different from those of adults so it is best to seek treatment specific for the child.

20.         What is the best way to treat a cold or cough?

While there is no cure for the common cold, and medication can only treat symptoms, here are some tips to relieve the symptoms:

  • Get lots of rest
  • Drink plenty of fluids, including water, unsweetened juice or clear soup
  • Clear the nasal passage using nasal saline drops available over the counter
  • Use a humidifier to keep the air moist and relieve congestion and cough
  • A warm bath or hot shower helps feel better
  • Relieve sore throat by gargling with warm salt water
  • Try these home remedies for cough

Symptoms should go away in a week or ten days but if there is no change or if they become worse, it is time to see your doctor.

Do you have any questions about cough not covered here? Do share in the comments.

Learn more about types of coughs and tips for relief

Cough 101 or Why Won’t that Cough Go Away?

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Carol Graham August 9, 2016 at 9:54 pm

I am not sure if this is available where you are, but I always treated my little ones and now my grand babies with bifidus (only if it is alive) for coughs or earaches. Almost instant results and it is totally natural.

Vidya Sury August 9, 2016 at 10:02 pm

That is interesting, Carol. I just looked up bifidus and it makes a lot of sense. Not sure if we get it here – probably because I don’t know. I will ask our pharmacist tomorrow 🙂 Thank you for coming by!

Shilpa Garg August 9, 2016 at 10:10 pm

This is such an informative post and answers all queries regarding cough. A must read for all parents. I usually start with home remedies like ginger and honey or black pepper with jaggery and it works mostly.

Vidya Sury August 9, 2016 at 10:18 pm

Thank you Shilpa! We prefer to start off with home remedies too. Lemon+Ginger+Honey works wonders 🙂

Obsessivemom August 10, 2016 at 12:49 pm

This used to be such a big problem when the kids were younger. As soon as monsoon would set in they’d start with the cough specially my son. And it takes ages to go. I’d sit nebulising him every two hours through the night. I found the honey-lemon combination pretty useful and also fresh roasted ajwain. It would soothe his cough during the night but as a result he now hates the smell.

Vidya Sury August 10, 2016 at 1:05 pm

Haha. So sorry to hear about the ajwain, Tulika. Something similar happened with my son. He once puked so much when he was 1.5 that he hates curd. Cough is literally a part of growing up and here in Bangalore, doctors don’t always take you seriously if you go to them for a cough/cold. Comes with the territory!

Rajlakshmi August 10, 2016 at 6:09 pm

My friends’ babies often catch cold and I have seen them worry so much. Will share this post with them.

Nabanita August 10, 2016 at 7:11 pm

This is such a great post especially for mothers like me who are new to parenting. M has cough these days and I have been worried with so many questions in my mind. Found some answers here. Thanks Vidya


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