700 Children's® – A Blog by Pediatric Experts

Cough Talk: What Does All That Hacking Mean?

Jan 07, 2016

Right now, there is probably at least one person in your household that has a cough. Coughs are often associated with the common cold and there’s little you can do, other than try to ease the symptoms. However, a lot of coughing, especially in babies under four months old, could be a sign of a serious illness. Here’s what to listen for:

Barking Cough

The distinctive ‘seal bark’ cough of croup is caused by inflammation of the voice box and throat. This can make it hard for your child to talk or breathe, and the symptoms can get worse at night. There isn’t medicine for croup – but keep your baby calm and let him breathe damp air (steam from a running hot shower or a cool mist humidifier). Go see your pediatrician if your child isn’t better within 10 days.

Loud Whoop

This could be Pertussis, also known as “whooping cough.” Outbreaks of this illness still pop up every few years despite widespread vaccination. In most cases, a baby will have no cold symptoms or fever, but will suddenly develop coughing fits where they can’t catch a breath. Some kids will ‘whoop,’ choke, or vomit after coughing. Your child can be given an antibiotic to fight the infection, but the cough may hang around for up to six weeks. This is what whooping cough sounds (and looks) like.

Wet, Nighttime Coughs

Coughs usually get worse at night, especially when mucous drains from the sinuses down the back of the throat and into the lungs. If you can reduce the nasal congestion you can help decrease throat irritation and coughing.

Dry, Daytime Coughs

This type of cough can be caused by infection – but also by physical irritation to the throat and lungs. Cold air, increased activity, fragrances, and indoor dust (stirred up by the furnace) can all trigger a dry cough. A persistent dry cough could mean allergies or asthma.

Cough Care

Cough medicine is generally not recommended for children. Here are some other home remedies to try:

  • A spoonful of sweetness can suppress coughs. Don’t give honey to children under the age of one.
  • Cold humidifier. This can hydrate the air and help soothe irritated throats.
  • Warm salt water. Gargling with a briny brew can bring temporary relief.

New Codeine Caution! 

Just last month, an expert panel of pharmacists and physicians recommended that teenagers and children should not take prescription or OTC products that contain codeine, including cough syrup. The committee said that codeine can cause breathing problems in some kids and may not even help reduce coughing. Talk to your doctor about what they recommend.

No matter what kind of cough your child has – if it is accompanied by a fever of more than 102˚F, or goes on longer than three weeks, it’s time for a trip to the doctor’s office. If your child turns blue with any coughing spell or is having difficulty breathing, go to the Urgent Care or ER immediately!

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Nationwide Children's Hospital Medical Professional
Terry Barber, MD
Emergency Medicine

Terry P. Barber Sr., MD, is the Medical Director of off-site Urgent Care Centers, and a Clinical Associate Professor of Pediatrics at The Ohio State University College of Medicine.

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Pediatric News You Can Use From America’s Largest Pediatric Hospital and Research Center

700 Children’s® features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.