When a child's cough means something more

April 24, 2017
A loud cough from a child can startle parents into wondering if something is seriously wrong. In most cases, the underlying cause of a cough is relatively harmless. It may be something like hay fever or the result of a lingering cold. All children cough occasionally and a cough is just a reflex meant to clear the airway. But what if the cause is not something minor? What if it is something more serious?
 
When a child’s cough lasts less than four weeks, it is considered “acute;” when a cough lasts longer than four weeks, it’s considered “chronic.” A chronic cough, as well an acute cough that is associated with other symptoms, means the child needs to be seen by a doctor. Some of the other symptoms include difficulty breathing, coughing up blood, or persistent fever.
 
The most common causes of a child’s cough are from viral respiratory infections like colds, the flu, and croup.  Most viral infections resolve on their own and don’t require the use of antibiotics.

Reasons for a cough that should be evaluated by your doctor

Bacterial infections (Pneumonia) can sometimes occur due to an underlying cold or flu. Its symptoms are often initially difficult to distinguish from a viral infection. Signs that may alert you to this being more than just a virus include persistent fever and difficulty breathing. Lethargy and dehydration may also occur and should prompt medical attention. 
 
Allergies can cause a lingering cough. When the cough is accompanied by watery eyes, itchy throat, or a rash, talk to your doctor about symptom relief or if it’s necessary to be tested for allergies. Once the specific allergens are narrowed down – which often tend to include pollen, dust, pets, or possibly specific foods – you can take steps to reduce exposure to the irritant. Your doctor may also prescribe medication or allergy shots to reduce symptoms.
 
Asthma can cause a persistent cough in addition to wheezing when your child breathes. Often, these symptoms occur more at night or during physical activity. Treatments for asthma can vary from child to child. Reducing exposure to any of number of potential triggers is most important. The most common triggers include tobacco smoke, pollen, mold, perfumes, and pets. When there is wheezing or difficulty breathing associated with the cough, your child should be seen by their doctor immediately. 
 
Whooping cough (Pertussis) is recognizable by its characteristic, repetitive “whooping” sound when taking a breath and persistent hacking cough. It is often accompanied by runny nose and mild fever. Whooping cough is contagious, but can be treated with antibiotics. Additionally, there is a vaccine for whooping cough, so ask your doctor if your child has already been or needs to get vaccinated.
 
Acid reflux can also cause a chronic cough. This should be considered if your child is vomiting or experiencing heartburn along with the cough. Meanwhile, try removing items from the diet that can make acid reflux worse. These items include chocolate, carbonated drinks, and fried, spicy or fatty foods. Lastly, smaller meals eaten at least two hours before bed can help with acid reflux and its related cough.
 
Foreign object in the airway. If your child is experiencing a sudden, overwhelming cough, he or she may have something stuck in the airway. The most common objects include small particles of food (often nuts or candy), coins, and toys. If this occurs, don’t try to dislodge the object with your finger. You could potentially push it further down the airway. The coughing itself may end up dislodging it. Call 911 right away if your child is struggling to breathe or turning blue.
 
In summary, kids will experience coughing multiple times throughout childhood. You don’t need to be alarmed with every little coughing episode, but if you do see additional symptoms or you just need more information, of course you should talk to your doctor. He or she is there to help.
Topics: Kids