Other Symptoms: Before the cough starts, your child has a week of cold-like symptoms but no fever. In infants, the illness can be severe and cause mucous to bubble from the nostrils. It can also lead to convulsions and make a baby stop breathing if he gets tired.
Likely Culprit: Whooping cough (also known as pertussis), a highly contagious bacterial infection of the throat, windpipe, and lungs. Children who haven't received their immunizations are most vulnerable. (Babies routinely get their shots at two, four, and six months; additional boosters between 12 and 18 months; and then again between four and six years. Immunity wanes as we get older. Therefore, adults may carry pertussis but get only a mild cough.)
What to Do: Call the doctor if your child's cough worsens instead of improves after a week. Babies usually need to be hospitalized to control the cough and have mucous suctioned from their throat. The illness is treated with antibiotics, though the cough can last for many weeks or even months.
Cough Facts Every Parent Should Know
Cough Suppressants: If your child's cough is keeping him up at night, a suppressant may help him sleep. Ask your pediatrician for a recommendation. However, you should know that inhibiting a cough, especially if your child has a mucousy, lower-respiratory cough, can actually exacerbate or prolong the illness, says Dr. Shubin.
Expectorants: They're meant to loosen mucous, but studies show they're not very helpful. "Water is a good expectorant," Dr. Shubin says.
Multisymptom Cold Relievers: Because these formulas contain more than one drug, be sure to read labels carefully. Your child may suffer side effects such as sleeplessness (common with antihistamines) or irritability (typical of decongestants), says Dr. Meredith Messinger, MD, an attending physician at Long Island College Hospital, in Brooklyn, New York.
Throat Lozenges: Cough drops increase saliva production, which can soothe your child's throat and loosen his cough. But don't give them to children under the age of four, Dr. Shubin says. Like any hard candies, lozenges pose a choking hazard.