Cough is a protective reflex to remove irritants, microbes, or foreign particles from the airways. A cough without production of phlegm (mucus) is called dry cough.
Coughing several times a day can occur in viral illnesses, such as common cold, and it usually resolves within a few weeks. If you notice persistent cough, lasting more than two to three weeks, in your child, visit a pediatrician (1).
Read this post to know more about the causes, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, home remedies, and prevention for dry cough in children.
Causes Of Dry Cough In Children
There can be various reasons for dry cough. Common causes in children may include the following (1).
- Viral respiratory infections such as common cold, croup, viral pneumonia, or acute bronchitis
- Post-viral cough (post-infectious cough or lingering cough) is seen at the end of viral respiratory tract infections. This is due to airway hyperresponsiveness.
- Whooping cough or pertussis caused by bacteria Bordetella pertussis leads to multiple coughs. A whooping sound on inhalation after a coughing fit is heard in this disease, and emergency care is required.
- Allergies and asthma can cause dry cough in some children. Wheezing can be another prominent symptom along with asthmatic cough.
- Irritants such as smoke, perfumes, dust, or smell of certain chemicals can trigger short spells of dry cough in some children.
- Inhaled foreign bodies, such as nuts or parts of toys, could cause cough in children. The child could continue to have a cough until the foreign object is removed from the airways.
- Dry weather may cause dry cough due to airway irritation and throat dryness.
- Sinus infection (sinusitis) may cause dry cough due to postnasal drip.
- Gastroesophageal reflux or acid reflux from the stomach may stimulate cough reflex, resulting in dry cough.
- Habit cough (psychogenic cough or somatic cough syndrome) is a cough without any medical reasons. This can be a loud barking or honking cough, sometimes seen after a child has recovered from airway infections.
Diagnosing dry cough can be challenging since it can occur in several viral and bacterial infections in children. It is also possible to have a dry cough due to non-infectious reasons. Seek expert help to identify the exact cause of dry cough in children.
Symptoms Associated With Dry Cough In Children
Cough is a symptom, not a disease. So you may notice other symptoms along with cough due to the underlying cause. The common signs and symptoms seen with cough may include (2):
- Stuffy or runny nose
- Muscle ache
- Body pain
- Sore throat
- Loss of appetite
- Breathing difficulty
The above-listed symptoms can be seen in various diseases and conditions. Seek medical care to identify the underlying cause and begin appropriate treatment.
Note: It is essential to teach cough etiquette, like covering the mouth, to your child to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.
Home Remedies For Dry Cough In Children
- Maintain adequate hydration to loosen the mucus and make it easier to cough. Hydration could also help soothe the throat.
- Give half to one teaspoon of honey as needed. Honey could help soothe the throat irritation. Do not give honey to babies younger than one year of age due to the risk of infant botulism.
- Corn syrup can be given if honey is not available. However, it may not work as well as honey.
- Warm, clear liquids may help ease throat irritation. You may try diluted apple juice, lemonade, or warm plain water.
- Cough drops or throat lozenges can be given to children older than six years. Younger children may have a risk of choking on cough drops.
- Give small frequent meals than full meals if coughing causes vomiting in your child.
- You may use a cool-mist humidifier if the ambient air is dry since dry air could worsen the cough.
- Cough medicines (antitussives) containing dextromethorphan (DM) can be given to children older than six years. Contact the pediatrician for a prescription with a safe dosage of cough medicine.
Non-prescription cough medicines are not recommended for the treatment of cough in younger children. Antibiotics are not useful for treating viral coughs. Always consult a doctor before giving antibiotics or any other medicine to children.
When To See A Doctor
Seek emergency medical care if your child has shortness of breath or bluish lips along with cough (4). Acute cough due to inhaled objects or any type of choking also requires immediate medical attention.
You may seek pediatric consultation for coughs with fever, wheezing, or other symptoms that interfere with sleep or daily activities.
Contact your kid’s pediatrician before going to the hospital to know the change in outpatient hours and regulations due to the COVID-19 pandemic in your locality.
Diagnosis Of Dry Cough In Children
History of associated symptoms, type of cough, and physical examinations are enough to establish most children’s diagnoses.
Pediatricians may order a chest X-ray, blood test, or a throat swab depending on the symptoms and examination findings. Lung function tests for asthma can be done in children who are older than five years (4).
Children with chronic cough, and weight loss or other severe symptoms may be referred to a respiratory specialist for detailed evaluation.
Treatment For Dry Cough In Children
Treatment for dry cough may vary depending on the severity and underlying cause. Any of the following management plans can be prescribed by the pediatrician (5).
- Antibiotic treatment is given only if bacterial infections are the cause.
- Acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) is used to control fever associated with cough. Do not give Aspirin to children since it may cause Reye syndrome.
- Anti-asthma medication (Ventolin) is prescribed for asthma cases, and asthmatic cough usually resolves while taking this medication.
- Post-viral cough (lingering cough or post-infectious cough) may not require specific treatment.
- The doctor may suggest avoiding exposure to secondhand smoke, and other airway irritants that trigger dry cough in young children.
- Referral to a gastroenterologist is made if the cough is caused by GERD or acid reflux.
- Psychogenic cough or habit cough may require behavioral therapy.
Most children get a prescription of oral medication and care at home. Some causes of cough, such as pertussis, pneumonia, and bronchitis, may require hospitalization.
Note: Over-the-counter cough and cold medicines for relief are not recommended for children younger than four years. You may give these medicines to children older than four years after discussing it with a pediatrician (6).
The dosage of medications may vary depending on your child’s age and current health status. Therefore, do not use another child’s prescription or use previously prescribed medications.
Tips To Prevent Dry Cough In Children
The following methods may help prevent the illnesses and conditions that lead to dry cough (7).
- Wash hands with soap and water or use a hand sanitizer
- Use a face mask
- Cover the mouth and nose while coughing or sneezing
- Do not touch the eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands
- Avoid close contact with people with respiratory infections
- Avoid irritants such as smoke and dust
- Use safe toys and avoid giving nuts to younger children to reduce the risk of inhalation
- Consider the annual influenza vaccination (flu shot). Flu immunization can be given any time after a baby reaches six months of age.
If your child has an asthmatic cough, it is recommended to follow the treatment as per prescription to avoid exacerbations. Routine vaccination for children can reduce the risk of pertussis, as well.
Dry cough in kids can be worrisome for many parents, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. If there is a history of exposure, such as contact with an infected person or travel to endemic areas, or your child has a higher risk due to chronic illnesses, seek immediate medical care.
2. Graham Worrall; Acute Cough in Children; The United States National Library Of Medicine
3. Coughs: Meds or Home Remedies?; Seattle Children’s Hospital
4. Cough; Raisingchildren; The Government Of Australia
5. Cough; National Health Service; Scotland
6. Common Cold; The Centers For Disease Control And Prevention
7. Coughs, Age 11 And Younger; Prevention; Michigan Medicine
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