Cough In Babies: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment And Prevention

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Coughing is one of the body’s defense mechanisms of getting rid of phlegm, mucus, sputum, postnasal drip, or a foreign body. A variety of factors can cause cough in babies, and while coughing is a necessary function, it is unhealthy for a newborn to cough excessively. If your infant coughs a lot, you should see a pediatrician (1). Read this post to learn more about infant coughs, their types, causes, treatment, and prevention methods.

Types Of Baby Cough

Cough in babies can be of various types

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Cough can be classified based on character, duration, quality, and timing as follows (2) (3).

  • Acute cough: A sudden onset of cough that lasts from a few days to less than three weeks.
  • Subacute cough: Lasts around three to eight weeks. Slow in onset.
  • Chronic or persistent cough: Lasts more than eight weeks, usually from allergies or asthma. It occurs off and on. It can also be due to infections.
  • Dry cough: Non-productive cough where there is no sputum production. Generally hacking cough.
  • Wet cough: Productive cough (phlegm) with sputum.
  • Nocturnal cough: Occurs at night and can be due to postnasal drip (mucus from nose and sinus drain to throat) or asthma. Mainly allergic cough.
  • Daytime cough: Occurs during the day and can often be allergic to smoke, air fresheners, pets, etc.

Cough can be classified based on their character, which is the nature of air’s movement during the cough (3).

  1. Barking cough: It can be due to swelling and inflammation in the upper airway, usually the larynx and trachea, due to the parainfluenza virus that interferes with taking the breath in. Inspiration. It may start suddenly during the night. You may hear stridor, which is a loud noise from harsh breathing while inhaling air. It is caused by croup (4).
  1. Whooping cough: It is a type of continuous cough without gaps to breathe in between coughing. The whooping sound is heard when the baby takes a deep breath at the end of the coughing episode. It is caused by pertussis infection by bacterium Bordetella pertussis and is common in unvaccinated babies under the age of one year (5).
  1. Staccato cough: The baby breathes in between each cough. It is a characteristic symptom of chlamydial pneumonia in babies (6).

Symptoms Associated With Baby Cough

Coughing by itself can be a symptom of respiratory tract infection or a simple reflex to an irritant such as smoke. The following symptoms could also occur along with cough in babies (3):

  • Cough with wheezing: Wheezing is a whistling sound that occurs while breathing out(expiration). The whistling sound can be heard from a distance. The child becomes breathless. It can be due to lower airway tract infections such as asthma or bronchiolitis or due to foreign bodies such as food or small toys.
  • Cough with a fever: Your baby may get a mild or high grade fever depending upon the severity of infection, whether mild flu or pneumonia. Body temperature more than 102°F (39°C) can be due to infections such as pneumonia.

    Cough with fever occurs due to infection

    Image: iStock

  • Cough with vomiting: If your baby has asthma or cold, they may vomit due to excess mucus accumulated in the stomach due to swallowing it. Or the mucus can get collected in the upper throat. Sometimes, they may vomit due to the stimulation of gag reflex while coughing.

When Should You Call The Doctor?

It is recommended to contact a pediatrician if your baby has a cough. Your baby may require immediate medical care in the following circumstances with cough (3) (7).

  • Difficulty in breathing
  • Breathing faster than usual. Generally depending on the age but respiratory rate more than 40 per minute.
  • Chest indrawing.
  • Blue color of the lips, face, or tongue
  • High fever
  • High fever with cough, without a runny or stuffy nose
  • High or mild fever in infants less than three months old
  • Cough more than few hours in infants younger than three months
  • Whooping sound after cough
  • Barking cough
  • Coughing up blood
  • Stridor (sharp sound while breathing)
  • Wheezing
  • Tiredness and irritability
  • Dehydration symptoms such as dry mouth, sunken eyes, no tears, and less urine

What Are The Causes Of Coughing In Babies?

Baby’s cough can be due to various factors ranging from teething to severe bacterial infections such as pertussis. Common cold, flu, and other respiratory infections may also cause cough. The common causes include (8):

  • Viral infections such as common cold, croup, etc.
  • Bacterial infections of airways such as pertussis
  • Allergic cough
  • Asthma
  • Sinusitis
  • Pneumonia
  • Bronchiolitis
  • Bronchitis
  • Gastroesophageal reflux
  • Congenital heart and respiratory problems
  • Foreign bodies
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Airway irritants
  • Aspiration of food
  • Teething due to excess saliva
  • Habitual cough

Diagnosis Of Cough In Babies

Your doctor makes a diagnosis by hearing the type of cough and other signs and symptoms. The diagnostic tests to identify the cause of cough may include the following.

  • Blood test
  • Chest x-ray
  • Sputum culture
  • Bronchoscopy

Treatment Of Cough In Babies

After identifying the cause of the cough, your doctor will recommend the appropriate treatment.

  • Cough due to bacterial infections requires antibiotic treatment.
  • A viral infection related cough requires supportive therapies.
  • Cough medicines are usually not recommended for children.

It is advised not to give over-the-counter cough syrup or cough drops to your baby since they have the risk of causing serious complications such as slow breathing, choking, etc. (9).

How To Prevent Cough In Babies?

The following factors may help prevent cough in babies.

  • You can prevent exacerbation of asthmatic cough by following prescribed medication.
  • Do not give small toys, which may be choking hazards.
  • Keep the baby away from smoke.
  • Follow proper feeding techniques to avoid food aspirations.
  • Get recommended vaccinations on time.

    Immunization may help prevent cough in babies

    Image: Shutterstock

  • Try to protect your baby from contracting viral illnesses such as flu or cold if you have it.

Home Treatment For Babies With Cough

The following home remedies may help relieve cough in babies (7):

  1. Give plenty of fluids or breastmilk to soothe the throat and prevent dehydration.
  2. The baby will need more rest.
  3. Prevent the drying of the nose and throat by using a cool-mist vaporizer or humidifier near a baby crib.

    Cool-mist humidifier can help baby breathe easily

    Image: iStock

  4. Saline drops can be used if your baby has a stuffy nose. Bulb syringe or other suction tools can be used to clean the nose in infants.
  5. Dress your baby in warm clothing in winter months.
  6. Keep away irritants such as pets, air fresheners, or dust from your baby.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Why is my baby coughing but not sick?

If your baby is coughing (dry cough) continuously but showing no other symptoms of illness, a foreign object may be stuck in their airway. Therefore, seek medical attention immediately (8).

2. Is it normal for a baby to cough every day?

No. If your baby coughs daily for more than four weeks, it is considered chronic coughing. It can signify various respiratory diseases, such as allergies, sinusitis, asthma, and acid reflux (8). Contact your baby’s doctor even if they have only been coughing for a few hours (11).

3. Why does my baby cough more at night?

If your baby has a cold, you may notice that it worsens at night. This is because when lying horizontally in bed, their nasal congestion and sinuses drain down the throat, causing irritation. Additionally, cough caused by asthma can worsen at night due to increased sensitivity and irritability of the airways (12).

Cough in babies could be due to a temporary irritation to their airway or an underlying infection. If your baby is frequently coughing or shows any other symptoms of an infection, consult your pediatrician for prompt medical attention. The treatment would be provided based on the cause. Refrain from giving over-the-counter cough medications to children. Also, check with your physician which home remedies you could try with your baby (10). Note that home remedies may provide temporary relief only and may not be a permanent solution to cure cough.

Infographic: Ways To Prevent Allergic Cough In Babies

Getting rid of the common allergens may help prevent allergic cough in babies. Refer to this infographic to know the hidden culprits that may trigger cough in babies and get rid of them as soon as possible.

ways to prevent allergic cough in babies [infographic]
Illustration: MomJunction Design Team


MomJunction's articles are written after analyzing the research works of expert authors and institutions. Our references consist of resources established by authorities in their respective fields. You can learn more about the authenticity of the information we present in our editorial policy.
1. Decoding Your Baby’s Cough; Children’s Hospital Los Angeles
2. Cough; The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
3. Cough Symptoms & Causes; Boston Children’s Hospital
4. Croup; The United States National Library of Medicine
5. Signs and Symptoms; Pertussis (Whooping cough); Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
6. Ronelle Vanessa Naidoo and Penelope Ann Bryant, Not every cough in bronchiolitis season is bronchiolitis; National Center for Biotechnology Information
7. Colds and flu in babies and children; Healthdirect; Government of Australia
8. 8 causes of chronic cough in kids; RUSH University Medical Center
9. When to Give Kids Medicine for Coughs and Colds; U.S. Food & Drug Administration
10. Coughs: Meds or Home Remedies?; Seattle Children’s Hospital
11. Key Coughs Parents Should Know; Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta
12. What is a cough? Boston Children’s Hospital
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Dr Bisny T. Joseph

Dr. Bisny T. Joseph is a Georgian Board-certified physician. She has completed her professional graduate degree as a medical doctor from Tbilisi State Medical University, Georgia. She has 3+ years of experience in various sectors of medical affairs as a physician, medical reviewer, medical writer, health coach, and Q&A expert. Her interest in digital medical education and patient education made...
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Dr. Mubina Agboatwalla

Dr. Mubina Agboatwalla is a well-known pediatrician, practicing paediatrics since the last 20 years in Karachi Pakistan. She is the head of the department of Pediatrics in Karachi Liaquat Hospital, as well as her private practice in three specialist clinics in Pediatrics. She is also a Public Health Specialist specializing in preventive health including nutrition, breastfeeding and infectious diseases especially...
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