By Raising Children Network
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  • Cough medicines contain ingredients that can sedate children and might harm them.
  • Plenty of fluids and rest do more good for many children with coughs.
Lots of children get a cough, and coughs tend to hang around in young children. They can be upsetting for children and parents alike, but most coughs don’t need any special treatment.

Causes of a cough

There are many causes of a cough in children, including:

  • viral and bacterial infections
  • irritations, like cold air, smoke, pollution or an inhaled foreign body
  • allergies and asthma
  • psychological reasons – for example, a habit cough.

By far the most common cause of coughing is a viral infection, when the cough usually happens as part of a cold. Young children get 6-12 colds a year.

The next most common cause of coughing is asthma.

Other causes of a cough are relatively uncommon.

Cough symptoms

Your child’s cough and any other symptoms will vary according to the cause of the cough.

A cough that follows a cold will typically be loose and sometimes produce mucus. It’s often worse at night. This is because when your child lies down, mucus drips from the back of her nose and mouth into her wind pipe. The cough might last for up to six weeks after the other symptoms of the cold have disappeared.

An asthma cough is often worse at night and after exercise. Your child might also have a wheeze and breathing difficulties, such as shortness of breath.

A barking, hoarse cough could mean that your child has croup.

If your child starts coughing suddenly and also wheezing following a choking episode, he might have inhaled a foreign body.

If your child has had a very heavy cold and then gets bouts of coughing for many weeks afterwards, which sounds like barking when she breathes out and ‘whooping’ when she breathes in, it might be whooping cough.

If your child is less than 12 months old and has a cough as well as breathing difficulties, it might be bronchiolitis.

In an older child or teenage child, a cough might become a habit. Usually these coughs are ‘honking’ coughs and don’t happen when the child is asleep.

When to see your doctor about a cough

Your child should see a doctor if:

  • the cough goes on for longer than a week or two after a cold
  • the cough starts suddenly
  • the cough is interfering a lot with your child’s sleep or daily life
  • your child has any difficulty with breathing
  • your child also has a high fever
  • your child’s skin changes colour, and turns blue or very pale.

In most cases, your child won’t need to see a doctor if he’s otherwise well except for his cough.

Tests for cough

Most children with a cough don’t need any tests.

A doctor can usually work out what the cause of the cough is by taking a careful history of your child’s cough and any other symptoms, and also by examining your child.

The doctor might order a chest X-ray if your child has had pneumonia or to make sure your child hasn’t inhaled something.

A blood test might help doctors work out whether there’s a serious infection present.

Treatment for cough

The most common cough is the one that follows a cold, and it doesn’t need any specific treatment. Most children don’t need antibiotics either. This is because a virus caused the original infection, and antibiotics treat only bacteria. This kind of cough is probably caused by the irritation in your child’s respiratory tract, rather than an infection.

If your child’s cough is caused by asthma, it can be treated with anti-asthma medication, but this treatment depends on your child’s symptoms and the age of your child.

Tobacco smoke can make your child’s cough worse, so keep your home smoke-free.

Cough medicines and expectorants (medicines that are supposed to help you cough up mucus from your lungs and airways) don’t make any difference to a cough.

Vaporisers and humidifiers don’t make coughing better. Also, young children might accidentally swallow the vaporiser solution (usually containing menthol or eucalyptus) or burn themselves.

Honey might reduce how bad a cough is and how long it lasts. But you shouldn’t give honey to children younger than 12 months because of the risk of infantile botulism (a rare but serious form of food poisoning).

Usually a cough following a cold will improve with time, no matter how you treat it.

Cough prevention

If your child’s cough is caused by asthma, you can usually prevent it with appropriate treatment.

You can minimise the risk of inhaling foreign bodies by not letting toddlers and infants eat nuts or play with small objects that they can easily inhale.

Unfortunately, you can’t prevent a cough caused by a viral infection.

  • Last updated or reviewed 05-06-2015