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Child Cough - Things to Know as a Parent

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Child Cough - Things to Know as a Parent

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Coughs can be annoying, but they usually are not a sign of a serious condition. Read this article to know more about it.

Written by

Dr. Vishnu K. R

Medically reviewed by

Dr. K. Shobana

Published At January 19, 2019
Reviewed AtFebruary 14, 2023

What Are Coughs?

Coughing in children is one of the common symptoms of childhood illness. They may sound awful at times, but they usually are not a symptom of any serious condition. Instead, they are the body's built-in mechanism for protecting and clearing the airways and fighting infection. There are many types of coughs, and viruses cause most of them. If the children have viral infections, they may cough multiple times a day or have coughing episodes persisting for up to a few weeks. However, if the cough lasts more than two to three weeks, see a doctor immediately.

What Causes Cough In Children?

Coughing in children can be acute or chronic:

Acute Cough (Lasting Two Weeks or Less):

  • Most children have brief, repeated coughing periods due to viral upper respiratory tract infections, like a common cold. On average, healthy preschool children can have up to eight viral respiratory infections with coughing per year, each lasting about ten days. Occasionally, a cough can occur because of a foreign object in the airway following an episode of choking. But, in some cases, the choking episode may go unnoticed, especially in younger children.

Chronic Cough in Children

There are many different causes of a persistent or chronic cough in children.

  • Asthma: Asthma symptoms can vary from child to child, making its diagnosis tough. However, most children with asthma have inflamed or swollen airways, which causes wheezing. The wheezing cough can worsen at night. The other symptom can be a cough with increased physical activity, play, or cold.

  • Nasal Disease or Sinusitis: It can cause a persistent chronic cough, with other symptoms, including a runny nose, itchy throat, watery eyes, sore throat, or rash.

  • Acid Reflux: In some children, chronic cough can occur due to movement of stomach fluid back up the throat (acid reflux). The other symptoms may include coughing, frequent vomiting, a bad taste in the mouth or spitting up, and a burning sensation in the chest known as heartburn. In addition, some children may develop hoarseness in their voices or choking symptoms.

  • Viral Infections: Colds, flu, and croup can cause cough for weeks in healthy children. While a cold tends to cause a mild to a moderate hacking cough, the flu leads to severe, dry cough; croup often causes a "barking" cough, commonly at night with noisy breathing.

  • Bacterial Infection of the Lower Airway: Sometimes, bacteria can infect the lower airways, causing irritation and cough. It is unclear why this happens, and sometimes the course of action is also not clear.

  • Habit Cough: This persistent cough has no apparent physical cause. It can occasionally occur after a viral respiratory infection. Usually, the cough is dry or repetitive or a "honking" cough, often when the child is awake and not sleeping. A neuromuscular tic may also lead to this type of cough.

  • Irritant Cough: A child may also cough after being exposed to irritants like tobacco smoke, smoke and exhaust from wood burning, air pollution, and exhaust from vehicles. This type of cough may even worsen the cough associated with asthma or rhinitis.

How Are Coughs in Children Diagnosed?

Reach out to a doctor if concerned about a child's cough. Depending on the type of cough, its duration, and other symptoms, the doctor may prescribe a treatment plan. Usually, hearing the cough is enough for the doctor to diagnose or rule out a serious problem.

How Are Coughs in Children Treated?

The following ways can treat coughs in children:

  • Coughing due to a viral respiratory infection requires no specific treatment. It usually goes away in one or two weeks.

The treatment for chronic cough is based on the underlying cause:

  • Over-the-counter mucous thinning agents like Guaifenesin and cough suppressing medications, including Dextromethorphan, can be taken. However, most over-the-counter cough medications are not believed to be particularly effective; they may work better in a child than in other children.

  • Asthma treatment depends on what is causing it and includes avoiding triggers or allergens, such as pollution, smoke, or perfumes.

  • Antibiotics cannot be used to treat viral infections because these medications only work against bacteria. But these infections can be managed with other medications.

  • Treatment for acid reflux depends on a child's age, health, and other issues. It often includes removing trigger foods from their diet. Ensure that the child eats his food at least two hours before bedtime in smaller meals.

  • Whooping cough is best treated with antibiotics.

  • Coughing from sinusitis can be managed by avoiding allergens, including food, pollen, pet dander, and dust. The doctor may also recommend allergy drugs or allergy shots.

Important Tips:

The following tips can make a coughing child feel better:

  • Never give a child an over-the-counter cough medicine without consulting a doctor. Cough medicines are generally not recommended for children under six years old.

  • Do not give over-the-counter combination medicines to children as they are more likely to get side effects than adults and can have an overdose of the medicine.

  • Cough drops can be given to older kids, but avoid giving them to kids younger than three years old as they can choke on them. Instead, consult a doctor first to ensure they are safe for the child.

  • Avoid giving cool beverages, such as orange juices, cold drinks, or soda, to coughing children as these can hurt a throat that is already sour due to coughing.

  • A cool-mist humidifier in the child's bedroom may help with their sleep.


Hearing a child cough may make a parent feel uneasy. But an occasional cough is not always a sign of a problem. Instead, coughing is a healthy reflex that helps clear the airways in the throat and chest by removing mucus, infections, and irritating substances. Schedule a visit with a doctor if a child has a cough for more than two to three weeks. A proper understanding of the different types of coughs in children can help parents know better when and how to handle them at home and when to seek medical help.

Frequently Asked Questions


What Is the Quickest Way to Relieve a Child’s Cough?

A child’s cough is often a sign of underlying conditions, such as the common cold, influenza, or viral fever. Hence before trying medications at home, a doctor should be consulted. If the cough persists after taking medications, warm water, milk, or soup water can be given to the child. This helps in clearing the mucosa in the throat and relieves the cough.


What Can Give Comfort to a Child With Cough?

Warm liquids can give comfort to a child with a cough. Warm liquids may include soup broths, warm water, milk, and tea extracts with honey. A humidifier can also give comfort to the child. A dry environment makes the cough worse. Hence a humidifier can clear the chest.


What Are the Symptoms of a Child’s Cough Becoming Serious?

The following may be the symptoms of a child's cough becoming serious - Shallow breathing. - Bluish discoloration of the lips and fingers. - Sound of wheezing along with inhalation. - C-Shaped cupping of the stomach. - High temperature. - Stiffness of the neck.


How to Ease a Child’s Cough at Night?

The ways to ease a child’s cough at night can include:
- Drinking warm fluids before sleeping.
- Placing humidifiers in the room.
- Inhaling steam.
- Making use of saline suction to remove the mucus congestion.
- Honey can soothe the cough.


Why Does Coughing Worsen at Night?

Coughing can worsen at night due to the flat-lying posture. In addition, due to the flat posture, mucus can accumulate at the back of the throat. This can accentuate the coughing. Sleeping with the head at an elevated position is seen to provide relief from coughing at night.


What Are the Food Items That Should Be Avoided With Cough?

The food items that are to be avoided with cough include:
- Chilled drinks such as soft drinks or juices.
- Oily items may irritate the throat.
- Sugary items can worsen the cough as it aggravates the inflammation.
- Dairy products such as yogurt.


Can Cough Be Cured Without Medications?

Cough, if not severe or associated with other medical conditions, can be cured by natural medications such as:
- Ginger-infused water.
- Honey.
- Steam.
- Warm fluids.
- Neti pot.


What Is the Typical Length of Time a Cough Can Last?

The duration of a cough depends on its severity. The cough can be either acute or chronic. A chronic cough can last for months together. This is seen in conditions such as COPD (Chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder) or chronic asthmatics. An acute cough generally lasts one to two weeks, depending on its cause.


Can Cough Spread From One Person to the Other?

Cough by itself cannot spread from one person to the other. Various underlying factors, such as bacterial or viral infection, cause a cough. Hence, a cough can act as a medium to spread these infections. These infections can travel from one person to the other in the form of droplets. Hence, it is always advisable to cover one’s mouth while coughing.


When Should a Cough Be a Cause of Worry?

The cough should cause worry with the following
-The cough does not resolve for weeks.
- When the cough is accompanied by fever.
- The cough is accompanied by thick secretion.
- When the phlegm is green or yellow.


Can a Kid Be Sent to School With Cough?

It is not advisable to send a child to school with a cough. Firstly, the cough could result from a contagious infection that may spread to other children at school. Secondly, with continuous coughs, the child feels discomfort and tiredness. Hence, it will be better if the child is given some rest.


When Can a Child’s Cough Be Contagious?

A child may be contagious or spread the infection to another child during the first few days of the infection. The child can remain contagious even a few days after the resolution of the infection. Hence, necessary precautions should be taken to prevent the spread of the infection.


What Are the Factors That Can Worsen a Child's Cough?

The following factors can worsen a child’s cough:
- Allergies to various components such as dust.
- Respiratory infections.
- Cold air.
- Asthma.
- Pets. 
- Strong odors such as repellents and room fresheners.
Dr. Vishnu K. R
Dr. Vishnu K. R

General Practitioner


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