Coughs, Age 11 and Younger

Topic Overview

Coughing is the body's way of removing foreign material or mucus from the lungs and upper airway passages or of reacting to an irritated airway. Coughs have distinctive traits you can learn to recognize. A cough is only a symptom, not a disease, and often the importance of a cough can be determined only when other symptoms are evaluated.

For information about coughs in teens and adults, see the topic Coughs, Age 12 and Older.

Productive coughs

A productive cough produces phlegm or mucus (sputum). The mucus may have drained down the back of the throat from the nose or sinuses or may have come up from the lungs. A productive cough generally should not be suppressed; it clears mucus from the lungs. There are many causes of a productive cough, such as:

  • Viral illnesses. It is normal to have a productive cough when you have a common cold. Coughing is often triggered by mucus that drains down the back of the throat.
  • Infections. An infection of the lungs or upper airway passages can cause a cough. A productive cough may be a symptom of pneumonia, bronchitis, sinusitis, or tuberculosis.
  • Chronic lung disease. A productive cough could be a sign that a lung disease is getting worse or that your child has an infection.
  • Stomach acid backing up into the esophagus. This type of coughing may be a symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and may awaken your child from sleep.
  • Nasal discharge (postnasal drip) draining down the back of the throat. This can cause a productive cough or make your child feel the need to clear his or her throat frequently. Experts disagree about whether a postnasal drip or the viral illness that caused it is responsible for the cough.

Nonproductive coughs

A nonproductive cough is dry and does not produce sputum. A dry, hacking cough may develop toward the end of a cold or after exposure to an irritant, such as dust or smoke. There are many causes of a nonproductive cough, such as:

  • Viral illnesses. After a common cold, a dry cough may last several weeks longer than other symptoms and often gets worse at night.
  • Bronchospasm. A nonproductive cough, particularly at night, may indicate spasms in the bronchial tubes (bronchospasm) caused by irritation.
  • Allergies. Frequent sneezing is also a common symptom of allergic rhinitis.
  • Exposure to dust, fumes, and chemicals.
  • Asthma . A chronic dry cough may be a sign of mild asthma. Other symptoms may include wheezing, shortness of breath, or a feeling of tightness in the chest. For more information, see the topic Asthma in Children.
  • Blockage of the airway by an inhaled object, such as food or a pill. For more information, see the topic Swallowed Objects.

Coughs in children

Children may develop coughs from diseases or causes that usually do not affect adults, such as:

Many coughs are caused by a viral illness. Antibiotics are not used to treat viral illnesses and do not alter the course of viral infections. Unnecessary use of an antibiotic exposes your child to the risks of an allergic reaction and antibiotic side effects, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, rashes, and yeast infections. Antibiotics also may kill beneficial bacteria and encourage the development of dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

A careful evaluation of your child's health may help you identify other symptoms. Remember, a cough is only a symptom, not a disease, and often the importance of a cough can only be determined when other symptoms are evaluated. Coughs occur with bacterial and viral respiratory infections. If your child has other symptoms, such as a sore throat, sinus pressure, or ear pain, see the Related Topics section.

Use the Check Your Symptoms section to decide if and when your child should see a doctor.

Check Your Symptoms

Home Treatment

Coughing is the body's way of removing foreign substances and mucus from the lungs and upper airway passages. Productive coughs are often useful, and you should not try to eliminate them. Sometimes, though, coughs are severe enough to impair breathing or prevent rest. Home treatment can help your child feel more comfortable when he or she has a cough.

  • Prevent dehydration. Fluids may help soothe an irritated throat. Honey or lemon juice in hot water or tea may help a dry, hacking cough. Do not give honey to children younger than 1 year of age. It may contain bacteria that are harmful to babies.
  • Do not give cough and cold medicines to your young child unless you've checked with a doctor first. They can be harmful to children. Experts say not to give these medicines to children under 2 years.
  • If your child's doctor tells you to give a medicine, be sure to follow what he or she tells you to do. How much medicine to take and how often to take it may be very different for children than for adults.
  • Do not give your child leftover antibiotics, or antibiotics or medicines that were prescribed for someone else.

If your child has a barking cough during the night, you can help him or her breathe better by following the home treatment for a barking cough.

  • Hold your child in a calming manner.
  • Keep your child quiet, if possible. Crying can make breathing more difficult. Try rocking or distracting your child with a book or game.
  • Use a humidifier to add moisture to the air. Do not use a hot vaporizer. Use only water in the humidifier. Hold your child in your lap, and let the cool vapor blow directly into your child's face.
  • If there is no improvement after several minutes, take the child into the bathroom and turn on the shower to create steam. Close the door and stay in the room while he or she breathes in the moist air for several minutes. Make sure your child is not burned by the hot water or steam. Do not leave your child alone in the bathroom.
  • If there is still no improvement, bundle your child up and go outside in the cool night air.

For more information on treating coughs and other respiratory problems, see the Home Treatment section of the topic Respiratory Problems, Age 11 and Younger.

Medicine you can buy without a prescription
Try a nonprescription medicine to help treat your child's fever or pain:

Talk to your child's doctor before switching back and forth between doses of acetaminophen and ibuprofen. When you switch between two medicines, there is a chance your child will get too much medicine.

Safety tips
Be sure to follow these safety tips when you use a nonprescription medicine:
  • Carefully read and follow all directions on the medicine bottle and box.
  • Do not use more than the recommended dose.
  • Do not give your child a medicine if he or she has had an allergic reaction to it in the past.
  • Do not give aspirin to anyone younger than age 20 unless your child's doctor tells you to.
  • Do not give naproxen (Aleve) to children younger than age 12 unless your doctor tells you to.

Symptoms to Watch For During Home Treatment

Use the Check Your Symptoms section to evaluate your child's symptoms if any of the following occur during home treatment:

  • Other symptoms develop, such as difficulty breathing, a productive cough, or fever.
  • Your child starts coughing up blood.
  • A cough lasts longer than 2 weeks without other respiratory symptoms.
  • Symptoms become more severe or more frequent.

Prevention

There is no sure way to prevent a cough. To help reduce your child's risk:

  • Make sure your child washes his or her hands often during the cold and flu season. This helps prevent the spread of a virus that may cause a cold or influenza.
  • If your child goes to a day care center, ask the staff to wash their hands often to prevent the spread of infection.
  • Make sure that your child gets all of his or her vaccinations, especially for diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (DTaP) and for Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib). For more information, see the topic Immunizations.
  • Help your child avoid secondhand smoke. Don't allow smoking in your home or around your child.
  • Try to avoid people who have colds or flu. If one of your children is sick, separate him or her from other children in the home, if possible. Put the child in a room alone to sleep.

For information on preventing allergies or asthma, see the topic Allergic Rhinitis or Asthma in Children.

Preparing For Your Appointment

To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.

You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your child's condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:

  • How long has your child had the cough?
  • How often does your child cough?
  • Does the cough have a pattern, such as worsening at night or becoming more frequent in the morning?
  • What situations increase your child's coughing?
  • Is your child exposed to any irritants, such as smoke, dust, or chemicals, at home or elsewhere?
  • Is the cough productive (brings up sputum) or unproductive (dry and hacking)? Be prepared to describe the color (bloody, rusty, white, yellow, or green), amount, and consistency of any sputum.
  • Does your child have other symptoms that may be related to the cough, such as nasal drainage, fever, shortness of breath, wheezing, or other suspected cold symptoms?
  • What home treatment have you tried for the cough? Did it help?
  • What prescription and nonprescription medicines or other treatments have you tried? Did they help?
  • What prescription and nonprescription medicines does your child take regularly?
  • Has your child ever been diagnosed with allergies or asthma? Does anyone else in your family have allergies or asthma?
  • Has your child traveled recently?
  • Does your child have any health risks?

Credits

Author Jan Nissl, RN, BS
Editor Susan Van Houten, RN, BSN, MBA
Associate Editor Tracy Landauer
Primary Medical Reviewer David Messenger, MD
Specialist Medical Reviewer Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Last Updated February 25, 2010

Last Updated: February 25, 2010

Author: Jan Nissl, RN, BS

Medical Review: David Messenger, MD Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine

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