Cough

What is a cough?

A cough is a common symptom of illness. Although coughs often sound bad, keep in mind that coughing is a good reflex that clears out the airways in the lungs and protects your child from getting pneumonia.

Your child may have a dry and hacking type of cough. Or your child may have a wet cough and cough up a lot of mucus. When your child continuously coughs for more than 5 minutes, it is called a coughing spasm.

What is the cause?

Most coughs are caused by a viral infection. An infection of the trachea (windpipe) is called tracheitis. An infection of the bronchi (larger air passages in the lungs) is called bronchitis. Most children get such a viral infection a couple of times a year as part of a cold. These infections are usually not serious.

How long will it last?

Usually bronchitis causes a dry tickly cough that lasts 2 to 3 weeks. Sometimes the cough becomes loose (wet) for a few days, and your child coughs up a lot of phlegm (mucus). This is usually a sign that the end of the illness is near.

How can I take care of my child?

  • Medicines to loosen the cough and thin the secretions
    • Cough drops: - Most coughs in children over age 4 years can be controlled by sucking on cough drops or hard candy. The cough drops or candy coat the irritated throat.
    • Homemade cough syrup: - For children 1 to 4 years old use 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of corn syrup instead of cough drops. The corn syrup thins the secretions and loosens the cough.
    • Warm liquids for coughing spasms: -Warm liquids usually relax the airway and loosen up the mucus. Start with warm lemonade, warm apple juice, or warm herbal tea. (Avoid this if your child is less than 4 months old.) Do not add liquor because it may aggravate the cough if your child inhales the fumes of alcohol into his lungs. Also, your child could become intoxicated from an unintentional overdose.
  • Cough-suppressant medicines - Cough-suppressant drugs reduce the cough reflex. However, the cough reflex helps protect the lungs. Use cough-suppressant drugs only for dry coughs that interfere with sleep, school attendance, or work. They also help children who have chest pain from coughing spasms. Do not give them to infants less than 1 year old or for wet coughs. Most nonprescription cough suppressants contain dextromethorphan (DM). Your child's DM product is ________________________. Give ________, every 4 to 6 hours as needed. You may want to give your child corn syrup during the day and DM at bedtime and during the night. DM is also available as a cough lozenge and as a long-acting liquid (effective for 12 hours).
  • Humidifiers - Dry air tends to make coughs worse. Dry coughs can be loosened up by encouraging your child to drink a lot and by using a humidifier in your child's bedroom.
  • Exercise - Children will find that gym and exercise trigger coughing spasms when they have bronchitis. If so, they should avoid such physical activity temporarily.
  • Active and passive smoking - Don't let anyone smoke around your coughing child.
  • Common mistakes in treating cough - Antihistamines, decongestants, and antipyretics are found in many cough syrups. There is no proof that these ingredients will help your child's cough, and the antihistamines may make your child sleepy. Expectorants are of unproven value but harmless. Stay with the simple remedies mentioned above or use dextromethorphan (DM). Milk does not need to be eliminated from the diet. Restricting it improves the cough only if your child is allergic to milk. Never stop breastfeeding because of a cough.

When should I call my child's health care provider?

Call IMMEDIATELY if:

  • Breathing becomes difficult AND is not better after you clear the nose.
  • Breathing becomes fast or labored (when your child is not coughing).
  • Your child starts acting very sick.

Call during office hours if:

  • A fever (over 100°F, or 37.8°C) lasts more than 3 days.
  • The cough lasts more than 3 weeks.
  • You have other concerns or questions.

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