Coughing in babies and toddlers is very common. The sound of a bad cough from a little child can be alarming to some, but a cough itself is technically not a sickness. Coughing is a kind of protective reflex the human body possesses and it is triggered when there is irritation to the mucus membranes of the respiratory tract. Irritation can be caused by a number of factors including dust, saliva or even something the child has eaten or drank. There are many types of coughs with various causes and triggers. For the sake of your child’s health, one of the best things you can do is to equip yourself with the knowledge of the different types of coughs and how to deal with them.
Common baby coughs and causes
Far from being a disease, coughing is a symptom caused by various reasons, one of which is that the child has a cold. Keeping your child hydrated with lots of warm fluids is one way to treat the early onset of colds. If your child has a fever together with the cold, treat it immediately. Always practice caution when administering any type medication to a small child – Be sure to seek medical advice from your doctor first.
A child may also be coughing because he or she swallowed or inhaled something. The curiosity of a baby or toddler can never be underestimated. They often think nothing of investigating foreign objects by popping them into the mouth for a taste. Little children and crawling babies also have this knack of seeking out the dustiest corners of the house to play in. Sometimes, children’s coughing is merely a reaction of little irritated lungs – a defense mechanism to rid itself of irritants.
Night-time coughs. At times, what starts as a bout of cough seems to get worse at night. This is especially so when a child has a cold, as the mucus from his or her little nose trickles down to the throat, triggering a cough while the child is trying to sleep. This reinforces the need to treat a cold as soon as possible to avoid discomfort while sleeping.
Daytime coughs. Bouts of coughs during the daytime can be caused by a number of reasons, the most popular ones being the use of air-fresheners and the inhaling of cigarette smoke. Pet dander can also be the cause of unexplainable coughs during the day. The best way to deal with this is to remove the causes and ensure the good quality of your indoor air.
Mucus cough. This type of cough is characterised by the sound of phlegm in the throat. A child with this kind of phlegmy cough may also have a runny nose and a mild fever accompanied with sneezing. The most likely cause of this cough is a cold. Some tender loving care should help your child feel better. Offer lots of liquids. Warm caffeine-free drinks such as chamomile or rooibos teas may help ease the throat. Try clearing out the mucus with a nasal aspirator – it will help to ease a stuffy nose and lets your little one breathe easily.
When not to take chances
When a child’s coughing is accompanied by breathing difficulties or shortness of breaths, it could indicate the onset of early asthma. This can even happen during the night, when the airways seem to be extra sensitive and easily irritated. Seek medical attention immediately. There can be no telling how close a child’s airways are to being completely closed up, making breathing extremely difficult or in some cases, impossible.
Coughing and vomiting
Sometimes, a child coughs so much that the gag reflex is triggered, causing him or her to vomit. A child with a cough or cold is likely to vomit when mucus drains into the little stomach, causing nausea. Unless the vomiting is continuous and does not ease up, there is little cause to worry. If however, the vomiting refuses to stop, your child will need medical attention and be treated for possible dehydration.
When a cough is cause for concern
Although most times, a child’s cough is harmless and a little tender loving care might set it to rights, there could be instances where extra care and precaution may be necessary. Here are some types of coughs that would warrant an immediate trip to the doctor’s office.
Whooping cough is the common term for pertussis, which is an infection of the airways caused by the bacteria (Bordetella pertussis). Whooping cough is identified by episodes of back-to-back dry-sounding coughs. At the end of the coughs, there will usually be a ‘whooping’ sound as the child inhales. Other symptoms of whooping cough to look out for are mild fever, runny nose, and sneezing.
Children who are most at risk are those who have not been vaccinated against pertussis. Vaccines for pertussis are included in our Government’s vaccination programme so do make sure your child is protected, as pertussis can get very severe for infants below the age of one. It is also very contagious, capable of spreading through the air and into people’s mouths or noses when infected individuals cough or sneeze.
A visit to your doctor is necessary as your child would likely need antibiotics. Encourage your child to drink as much fluid as possible to stay hydrated. Consider placing a humidifier in the room where your child spends the most time. This might help hydrate the air and soothe breathing passageways.
Barking cough is characterised by coughs that sound similar to a canine’s bark, accompanied by stridor, a high-pitched squeak at the end of the cough or when the child is inhaling. Barking cough is caused by a condition called croup, where the larynx (voice box) and trachea (windpipe) are swollen or inflamed. Accompanying symptoms of barking cough may include fever, hoarseness in the voice, difficulty swallowing or shortness of breath.
Croup may be the result of a virus attack, allergies or even drastic changes in temperature – for example, from hot and humid during the day to cold and dry at night. Children below the age of three are at risk of developing croup due to their small and narrow airways. Croup generally lasts three to seven days. You can help your child feel better in the meantime by:
QGiving him or her a hot shower with the doors closed. This is to allow the warm, moist air to ease the inflammation of the airway.
QPlace a cooling humidifier in your child’s room at night.
If your child develops a fever or has difficulty breathing, seek medical attention at once.
This is one to watch out for. It’s the kind of cough that is persistent, especially during the night. Continuous coughing may be caused by allergies. Another possible cause for continuous coughing may be asthma – a potentially serious condition where the airways swell, experience spasms and become clogged with mucus.
It is important to have your child checked by a doctor to rule out asthma. However, if asthma is indeed detected, your child will need medication and probably also be prescribed an inhaler.
In addition to medications prescribed by your doctor, you can also help your child ease the constant coughing by encouraging him or her to drink more liquids and stay hydrated. A humidifier in the room where your child spends the most time in might also help.
Coughing with laboured breathing
Look out for coughs which sound phlegmy, accompanied with difficulty in breathing, fever, chills or shivers, chest pains, vomiting and a possible bluish tint around the lips.
A likely cause of this type of cough is pneumonia, an infection where the lung tissues become inflamed and in bad cases, even filled with pus. Usually, this occurs directly after a viral or bacterial infection, when the system is still weak and vulnerable.
Seek medical attention at once to treat a cough of this nature. Help your child avoid dehydration by encouraging him or her to drink lots of liquids.
The wheezy cough
This is a potentially dangerous one to look out for. This cough is usually accompanied by rapid, shallow breathing and lethargy. The sound of this type of cough is phlegmy with high-pitched whistling or wheezing sounds.
The cause for a wheezing cough may be bronchiolitis, the swelling or inflammation of airways leading to the lungs, which then becomes infected. Pay attention that your child’s cold, fever, runny nose or mild coughs do not become worse and lead to difficulty in breathing or a rapid heartbeat.
The most known cause for bronchiolitis is respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). However, in some cases, something as harmless as the common flu or cold, if left untreated for a prolonged time, can also give rise to bronchiolitis.
RSV and bronchiolitis are known to be most dangerous to infants. However, the condition can be potentially serious in toddlers too, especially if left untreated. If your child shows signs of dehydration: cracked lips, tearless crying or weak-looking, sunken eyes, urinates less, or has a high fever, laboured breathing and bluish lips and fingernails, seek medical intervention immediately.
You can help your child ease breathing difficulties by clearing his or her nose with a nasal aspirator. You can also ask your doctor about nasal drops. Keep your sick child hydrated with lots of fluids. Water, juice or warm caffeine-free drinks would help the little one feel better and more settled. Fill the air in the room with moisture (that’s right, moisturise your indoor air). Use a humidifier; the moisture in the air may help relieve and clear the airway, making breathing easier and more comfortable.
Regarding over the counter cough syrup and cough drops: Resist giving your baby or toddler OTC cough medicine. Always check with your doctor before giving or administering any over-the-counter medications. While cough drops might be safe for older children, do not offer these to babies or even toddlers as they might choke on them.