What Your Child’s Cough Could Mean

Sick obese boy is coughing and throat infection on bed, health care concept

You may not know that coughing can sometimes benefit the human body- by flushing out harmful contaminants in the respiratory system. 

But a cough- whether wet or dry- is more often a symptom of acute respiratory infection. If your child has a recurring cough, it could be indicative of something more serious like asthma or bronchitis. In such a case, a diagnosis from a pediatric pulmonology specialist is advised.

Here’s a quick guide to understanding what your child’s cough could mean. 

Understanding a Cough as a Symptom

A cough, or tussis, is a quick expulsion of air from the lungs that helps clear the throat and respiratory tract of foreign substances, viruses, irritants, fluids, and mucus. There are two main types of coughs:

Non-productive Cough

This is a dry “clearing” cough that does not produce phlegm or mucus, and generally feels like an itch in the back of the throat. It is the body’s response to an irritant in the airways or breathing in dry air and creates a dry, hollow sound.

Typically associated with a cold, it can also be caused by allergies, bronchitis, and asthma. It can be treated with cough medicine, but in extreme cases, particularly when accompanied by blood or mucus, it requires medical attention. 

Productive Cough

A productive cough is characterized by a “wet” sounding cough that is accompanied by sputum (mucus) production and indicates the presence of fluid in the respiratory system. It is the body’s way of fighting a viral or bacterial infection by producing more mucus.

Identifying Your Child’s Cough

“Barky” Cough

This is a hoarse cough caused by an inflamed and swollen voice box, and windpipe.

It is a well-known symptom of croup, an illness often induced by a cold. As the condition worsens, the child may have difficulty breathing, resulting in a high-pitched squeaky sound (stridor) as they cough and breathe in.

Whooping Cough (Pertussis) 

This is when a child coughs uncontrollably, taking deep breaths, and a “whooping” sound is heard when they breathe in. It is a contagious respiratory disease common to all ages but fatal to infants.

Cough With Wheezing

Wheezing is a high-pitched whistling sound that occurs when your child breathes in. It’s usually caused by inflamed airways, which can happen when your child has asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or pneumonia.

Nighttime Cough

Nighttime cough can be a sign of nocturnal asthma, a condition that causes inflammation in the lungs, which makes it hard for kids to breathe, especially as they sleep. 

Daytime Cough

If your child coughs a lot during the day, it may be due to the chilly air, which has less moisture and dries up the airways.

Cough With a Fever

This could be a symptom of an upper respiratory infection (URI) or “the flu”. It normally clears up in a few days, but if your child is breathing rapidly, seems weak, and has a fever of 105°F or higher, they might have pneumonia.

Cough With Vomiting

Ailments such as a cold or asthma result in a large amount of mucus production, which can induce vomiting in children. Other times, it’s because coughing triggers a child’s gag reflex.

Persistent Cough

Coughs are classified as acute if they last 2 weeks or less and chronic if they last over 3 weeks in children. Most acute coughs come from viral infections, such as the common cold, and continue for two weeks. Meanwhile, chronic conditions such as asthma or allergies can generate a persistent cough that comes and goes.

When To Call Your Doctor

Call your doctor immediately if your child

  • Is unable to breathe properly
  • Is breathing too fast
  • Is turning blue on the face or lips
  • Has a high fever
  • Makes a whooping sound when coughing
  • Is coughing up or vomiting blood
  • Becomes dehydrated from vomiting
  • Is wheezing
  • Is younger than 3 months old and has a fever or persistent cough

How to Treat a Child’s Coughing Fit

You can help your child by:

  • Keeping them well-hydrated. Fluids can support your child’s immune system to combat the cough-causing infection or virus.
  • Using a humidifier at night can help relieve a dry cough by expelling moisture into the air.
  • Keep your home clean, dust, and pollen-free to minimize airway irritations.
  • Letting them sleep or rest upright to prevent fluid or mucus buildup in the lungs or throat.

Newport Children’s Medical Group

If your child has a chronic cough or a cough that is not going away, contact Newport Children’s Medical Group to speak with one of our pediatric pulmonologists today.