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Name That Cough: A Guide to Understanding Coughs and How to Treat Them

The winter season brings cool weather and lots and lots of runny noses. The common cold is a frequent visitor to most families each year. However, sometimes that runny nose and cough is caused by something else, something more serious. Most parents’ ears perk up when their child coughs. Learn which coughs you should be concerned about and how to treat their cough properly.

Dry Cough

A dry, raspy cough is a sign of irritation. Irritants such as dander, pollen and smoke are often the culprits. This is the annoying, tickly cough that can be difficult to calm and has minimal production of mucous. If the dry cough occurs at night or when your child is physically active, it may be caused by asthma.

To treat a dry cough, drinking fluids are very helpful, as are nose drops. If your child is old enough for throat lozenges (usually 4 years and over), they may provide relief as well. If you suspect your child may have asthma, schedule an appointment with their pediatrician to have them evaluated. If your child is having difficulty breathing or if the cough makes it difficult to speak, eat or drink, call 911.

Wet Cough

We all know that icky, phlegmy cough that is an indication of illness. While most people cringe to hear it, when it’s your child, you want to fix it. The wetness you hear in the cough is caused by mucus in your child’s airways. A wet cough is often accompanied with a runny nose and a sore throat. Most often wet coughs will go away on their own because viruses cause them. Viruses, however, cannot be treated with antibiotics. If your child’s cough lingers for over a week and they have worsening nasal discharge, they may have developed a bacterial sinus infection, which may require an antibiotic.

For children too young to blow their nose, use a ball syringe to suction out the mucus in their nose. Using a cool mist humidifier while they sleep is also helpful, but be sure to thoroughly clean it daily so bacteria doesn’t develop in the system. Have your child drink plenty of fluids. Frozen Pedialyte pops are helpful in keeping them hydrated while they are ill. Cough drops may also provide some relief for both their sore throat and cough, but only if they are old enough to safely have them.

“Barking” Cough

If your child’s cough sounds like a barking seal, she probably has croup. A virus usually causes croup, however, in some cases it can be caused by allergies or extreme nighttime temperature fluctuations. Croup causes swelling in the larynx and trachea, which can make breathing difficult. While the child’s cough may sound better during the day, it worsens at night. Croup is often accompanied by stridor, which is a whistling sound heard when inhaling.

To improve your child’s croupy cough, head outdoors where the air is cooler as this can cause their airways to relax. You can also turn the shower on and let the bathroom get nice and steamy. Spend about 15 minutes sitting in the bathroom with your child. The warm, moist air may help your child breathe easier. Using a cool-mist humidifier and drinking plenty of fluids will also help their symptoms. In some cases, your child’s pediatrician may prescribe a dose of oral steroids, however, croup typically resolves on its’ own. As always, if they have stridor, are working hard to breathe or are blue, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department.

Whooping Cough

Also known as pertussis, whooping cough is a bacterial infection that causes inflammation of the airways, making it difficult to breathe. Whooping cough presents with back-to-back coughing fits that do not allow the child to breathe in between. The lack of breathing causes them to take a large gasp of air following coughing that sounds like a whooping noise.

Pertussis is most common in children under one year of age who have not had their DTap vaccine, however it can occur at any age. Since it is highly contagious, it is important that children and adults receive their pertussis vaccine. If you suspect your child has whooping cough, call their pediatrician immediately. Depending on the child’s age, they may require hospitalization.

Treatment typically includes antibiotics. Because of its’ high rate of contagion, all members of your household should receive a booster shot if it has been more than five years since they last received the vaccine.

While depending on their severity, coughs can be scary. But coughs are also helpful. They are the body’s way of clearing the throat so breathing can occur. If your child has a persistent cough that lasts longer than three weeks, schedule an appointment for them to be seen by their pediatrician.

When to Call the Pediatrician

Here are some more times you should call the pediatrician. If your child:

  • Has trouble breathing or is breathing faster than usual
  • Has a blue color to lips, face or tongue
  • Has stridor (high pitched sound when breathing in)
  • Has wheezing when exhaling
  • Makes a whooping sound following coughing
  • Coughs up blood

The team at Rainbow Pediatrics is here to help. If you would like more tips to keep your children their healthiest, visit our blog here.

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