Cough in toddlers can be a symptom of many underlying causes. Coughing is a reflex that gets rid of excess mucus, irritants, smoke, or phlegm. It is a natural protective action that involves clearing the airways to facilitate easy breathing. Although coughing could be normal in toddlers, sometimes, it may be a sign of respiratory conditions requiring medical attention.
Learn more about the different types of cough and the possible causes, home remedies, and medical care for cough in toddlers.
Types And Causes Of Toddler Cough
The type of cough may vary depending on the cause. Viral respiratory infections and asthma are the common causes of cough in toddlers. You may be able to distinguish the cause with the difference in the sound of the cough.
The following are the types of cough seen in toddlers (1).
1. Dry cough
Dry, hacking cough can be due to upper respiratory tract infections, such as common cold and influenza. Cough related to cold or flu can worsen during nighttime, especially if the room is warm and dry. Early stages of lower respiratory tract infections such as pneumonia (lung inflammation) and bronchitis (inflammation of bronchus) also cause dry cough.
In lower respiratory infections, a dry cough often changes into a wet cough during illness. Exposure to cigarette smoke, perfumes, other airway irritants, and asthma could trigger dry cough in toddlers.
2. Barking cough
Barking cough, also known as croup cough, is a viral illness that leads to swelling of the upper trachea and windpipe, causing harsh, dry coughs. They sound like the barking of a seal and hence the name. High-pitched stridor sounds are heard during inspiration (inhalation) in toddlers with croup.
3. Wet cough
Also called productive cough or chest cough, wet cough brings out mucus from the airways. Fluid and mucus in the lower respiratory tract could trigger the cough reflex in toddlers. Lower respiratory tract infections allergic bronchitis post upper respiratory infections are prominent causes of moist or wet cough in children.
4. Whooping cough
Whooping cough, also called pertussis, is a highly contagious bacterial infection caused by Bordetella pertussisbacteria. This infection is only spread from humans to humans through airborne mucus or saliva droplets. Toddlers who have pertussis will have coughing spells followed by a whooping sound when they breathe in.
Whooping cough can lead to hypoxia (lack of oxygen) in toddlers. If you notice whooping cough in your toddler, seek immediate medical care since it can be fatal if left untreated.
5. Sudden cough
Toddlers may cough suddenly if they accidentally inhale food, parts of toys, and liquid into the airway. This may also happen if food or vomit gets stuck in their throat. Coughing for a few minutes usually clears the foreign body from the airways or throat. If your toddler continues to cough for several minutes or develops breathing problems, seek medical care.
Do not push anything stuck in the throat with your fingers since there is a high risk of it moving down the windpipe.
6. Nighttime cough
Postnasal drip can be the reason for nocturnal cough in toddlers. Congestion of the nose and draining of the sinuses to the throat can cause cough before bedtime but usually disappears while sleeping. Asthma coughs may also happen at nighttime due to increased airway sensitivity at night.
If your toddler has a persistent cough, wet or whooping cough or associated breathing difficulty, seek medical care for an exact diagnosis. Dry cough due to uncomplicated viral illnesses can be managed at home. However, if you are uncertain about the cough type, seek advice from a pediatrician.
Home Remedies For Cough In Toddlers
- Give enough fluids to loosen the mucus and prevent dehydration.
- Warm soups and broths may help to ease chest irritation and soreness.
- Warm water may also ease coughing in toddlers.
- Giving half or one teaspoon (2 to 5ml) of honey may help loosen the mucus and ease the cough. Corn syrup can also be given instead of honey. Do not give honey to babies younger than one year since it may cause infant botulism.
- Humid air reduces coughing since it has water vapor in it. Usea cool-mist humidifier or hang a wet cloth in the baby’s room to moisten the air.
- Breathing cold air could relieve croup cough. Let your toddler inhale cool air near the window or a fan. You may also take them outside.
- Avoid physical activity until the cough clears since activities may worsen coughing.
- Avoid giving certain foods, such as nuts, popcorn, and hard food bits, to children younger than four years since they may inhale it into the airway while swallowing.
These cough remedies are useful in managing viral dry cough or post-viral coughdue to flu or cold. Bacterial illnesses causing cough may require antibiotics to cure the condition. Children with asthma need to use their inhaler prescribed by your doctor. Sometimes, younger children need nebulisation as they are unable to use inhalers. Your doctor will decide that for the baby.
When To See A Doctor
- Cough not going away after two to three weeks
- Cough that gets worse over time
- Wet cough
- Breathing difficulties
- Rapid breathing
- Lack of consciousness
- Whooping cough
- Ear pain
- Trouble eating or drinking
- Blue lips
- Coughing up blood
If you notice any of the symptoms mentioned above or cannot distinguish the type of cough, seek a pediatric consultation. Timely treatment could prevent complications of cough and its related illness.
Treatments For Cough In Toddlers
The cough treatment may vary depending on the type and underlying cause of cough. Doctors may suggest home remedies, such as giving honey, warm water, and breathing humid air to manage uncomplicated coughs in toddlers.
If the cough is due to asthma, long-term medications may be given after the confirmation of diagnosis. Toddler coughing after a viral infection (post-viral cough) may not require any specific medications. This usually disappears in a week or two.
Toddlers may receive acetaminophen if they have a fever. Supportive management is given for viral illnesses. Antibiotics are prescribed only if the cough is caused by bacterial infections of the chest and throat.
Is It Safe To Give Over-The-Counter Cough Medicine To A Toddler?
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that no cough or cold medicine should be given to children below four years of age unless prescribed by a doctor (6). Cough syrups and cough medicine may cause serious side effects in infants and toddlers (5).
OTC cough remedies may cause slow breathing in babies and toddlers. Cough medications containing codeine or hydrocodone are not prescribed for children since it slows down the central nervous system functions. It is recommended to seek consultation for cough medications for toddlers since pediatricians can prescribe appropriate and safe medications.
A few reasons for cough in toddlers can be prevented by vaccination, such as the DTaP vaccine prevents whooping cough, and annual influenza vaccination prevents cough related to the flu. Viral infections and asthma are significant causes of cough in toddlers. Proper asthma treatment helps to avoid exacerbations. Viral infections can be prevented to an extent by appropriate hand hygiene and practicing cough and sneeze etiquette at home and in daycare centers.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Does Vicks help a cough?
Yes, a gentle rub with Vicks can be used to relieve cough in children over two years old and help them breathe (7).
2. Is milk harmful to a toddler’s cough?
No, milk is not harmful. Hence, you can safely give your child fat-free or low-fat milk or pair it with some fruits during their cough and cold (8).
Coughing has protective functions as it helps clear the airways. However, frequent cough in toddlers requires medical attention since it may be due to an underlying issue. While a sudden cough may indicate a temporary irritation in the throat, whooping cough, wet cough, or nighttime cough may indicate a respiratory infection. Consult your pediatrician if the cough persists or is accompanied by other concerning signs. Avoid administering OTC medications to toddlers. Instead, follow the treatment plan suggested by the doctor. Alternatively, you may follow some home remedies after seeking your doctor’s approval.
- The type of cough in toddlers may vary depending on the underlying cause, such as dry cough, wet cough, whooping cough, or nighttime cough.
- Warm water, warm soups and broth, and air humidifiers may help relieve cough in toddlers.
- Avoid giving honey to babies below one year due to the possible risk of botulism.
2. Coughs and Colds: Medicines or Home Remedies?; American Academy of Pediatrics
3. Home Remedies for Colds and Croup: Do They Work?; St. Louis Children’s Hospital
4. Cough Symptoms & Causes; Boston Children’s Hospital
5. When to Give Kids Medicine for Coughs and Colds; U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA)
6. Adverse Drug Events in Children; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
7. Treating the Common Cold in Children; American Family Physician
8. Feeding Children When They Are Sick; Eat Right. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics