Decode Your Child’s Cough
How to recognize seven major illnesses
The Common Cold
Cough Clues: A wet cough without wheezing or fast breathing, day or night.
Other Symptoms: Sneezing, a runny nose, watery eyes, and a mild fever (usually less than 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit).
Likely Culprit: The common cold, a viral infection of the nose, sinuses, throat, and large airways of the lungs. Coughing usually lasts the entire length of the cold (about seven to 10 days) but can linger twice as long, with mild improvement each day.
What to Do: Keep nasal passages as clear as possible; congestion and postnasal drip worsen this cough. For babies and toddlers who can’t blow their noses, use nasal saline drops and a bulb aspirator to suction a runny nose.
An over-the-counter nasal decongestant may help kids older than two; ask your pediatrician for her recommendation. If your child’s cough and stuffy nose persist for more than 10 days without improving, return to the doctor. Your child could have sinusitis (a bacterial infection that’s often brought on by a cold) or another problem such as asthma, allergies, or even enlarged adenoids, which inhibit breathing.
Cough Clues: A distinctive, shrill, dry, seal-like bark, which frequently starts in the middle of the night. “The sound is unlike any cough you’ve ever heard before,” says Dr. Widome.
Other Symptoms: Your child’s illness follows a circadian rhythm: better during the day, worse at night. She may also have a slight fever. In severe cases, your child may develop stridor, a harsh, high-pitched sound every time she inhales—similar to the noise kids make after a long crying jag.
Likely Culprit: Croup, a contagious viral infection that causes the throat and windpipe to swell and narrow. It typically affects kids between six months and three years. (Adults and older children have wider windpipes, so swelling is less likely to affect breathing.)
What to Do: Sit with your child in a steamy bathroom for five minutes; the humidity will help move mucous from her lungs and calm her cough. At night, if the temperature is chilly, bundle her up in warm pajamas but don’t be afraid to open her bedroom window and run a humidifier in the room; the cold, moist air may reduce airway swelling. Call your doctor right away if the cough worsens or she’s having trouble breathing. She may need medicine to reduce inflammation. Otherwise, croup often runs its course in three to four days.
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