Help, my child is coughing! What can I do?

coughing in children causes and treatment babywombworld

With the lockdown and social isolation in place, many parents are reporting healthier babies and toddlers this winter. This is because they are not exposed to the usual winter germs in a crèche or preschool. But even without exposure at school, few will pass the winter without any sniffles and coughing. Is children’s cough something to worry about?

Before we start… remember that a dry cough is one of the main symptoms of COVID19, so if anyone in your family has a dry cough with fever and shortness of breath you should contact your doctor or the COVID 19 24 hour hotline on 0800 029 999.

Children’s Cough: Causes and Treatment

It’s important to know that even though a cough may sound terrible, it is usually not a serious problem. Coughing is a reflex that the body uses to protect the throat and the lungs by expelling anything that should not be there. Here are some tips to help you understand and cope with coughing.

Coughing due to infections

There are many causes for children’s cough, one of them being viral, bacterial or fungal infections. You can know that baby has an infection if he also has a fever.

  • Colds and flu – if your child is coughing together with a lower grade fever, runny nose and mild illness he probably has a common cold or flu. Common colds will usually pass on their own with just some simple supportive measures that you can implement yourself at home.
  • Bronchitis and Bronchiolitis are infections of the bronchi or tubes that carry air to the lungs. The baby may have a low fever and some shortness of breath.
  • Pneumonia – this is an infection of the lungs itself, and baby will typically be a lot sicker than with a common cold or with bronchitis. If your baby has a high fever that persist, seems weak and sick, refuse to eat and drink, and experience fast breathing or any breathing difficulty you should urgently see a doctor.
  • Whooping cough or pertussis – this is a specific airway infection caused by the bacteria Bordetella pertussis. Little ones with pertussis will have coughing spells during which they do not breathe at all, followed by a deep breath at the end that produces a ‘whoop’ sound. Children are immunised against pertussis as part of South Africa’s immunisation programme. Even so, outbreaks still occur. You should see your doctor if you suspect that your baby has whooping cough as it is a potentially serious condition for which baby will need treatment.
  • Tuberculosis (TB) – South Africa is the country with the highest TB rate in the world. If your little one was in close contact with someone diagnosed with TB, and has a cough accompanied by weight loss, fever, low energy levels and night sweating you should see a doctor.

Children’s cough due to other reasons

Coughs can also be present without an infection:

  • Allergies
  • Asthma – you should see your doctor for any cough that lasts longer than 2-3 weeks to exclusive asthma. Other signs would include wheezing and tightness in the chest, and a cough that is worse at night or after your child was running and playing.
  • A foreign object in the airway – If a wheezing cough starts suddenly you need to see your doctor
  • Reaction to irritants like smoke, cleaning materials or dust

READ MORE: What to do when your baby has a fever

Treatment tips for different types of coughs

A wet cough occurs when the body is pushing fluid (mucus) out of the airways during coughing. You will be able to hear the mucus ‘rumbling’, and baby usually as a runny nose as well. Wet coughs are usually linked to airway infections and they may take 2-3 weeks to disappear, even after baby is well again. The goal with treating wet coughs is to loosen mucus and to help the body to expel it more easily. Try these tips for wet coughs:

  • If baby’s nose is also blocked, use a Saline nasal spray to relieve congestion.
  • You can use a nebuliser with Saline (0,9% salt water solution) to help loosen mucus inside the lungs. Many parents feel that this is the measure that helps most. The doctor can also prescribe other nebulising solutions to open the airways and to bring relief.
  • Natural cough syrups like Zinplex Cough Be Calm Syrup contains Natural Dry Extract of Ivy Leave and helps to loosen phlegm and to relax the airways. You should not use any other cough or cold medication to children under two years of age.
  • Use a humidifier to moisten the air in the room.

A dry cough happens when there is irritation in the airways but no mucus to expel. It can be caused by many different things, including colds and flu, laryngitis (inflammation of the voice box), tonsillitis, sinusitis, allergies and exposure to dust or smoke in the air. Occasionally a chronic dry cough can be linked to reflux in babies. Otherwise, try these tips:

  • Dry coughs usually don’t require treatment and are more difficult to relieve. Using a humidifier can make baby more comfortable. Add a few drops of Eucalyptus essential oil.
  • For toddlers over a year a warm drink like Rooibos tea with a teaspoon of honey can help to ease irritation in the throat.

A croup cough happens when the airways become irritated and swollen, and it produces a ‘barking’ sound and squeaky breathing noises. This is scary for both the parent and the child. It is mostly caused by viral infections and will pass on its own, but these tips can help:

  • Use a cool-mist humidifier or take your little one outside to breathe in cool air for 10-15 minutes.
  • Give your child a cool drink.
  • The doctor can prescribe a steroid nebulising solution to reduce inflammation.

A wheezy children’s cough means that the lower airways of the lungs are swollen. This can happen because of asthma, or because of bronchiolitis, or because of a foreign object in the lungs. Most children will have wheezing at some point, but it is still worthwhile having it checked out to make sure that you are treating it correctly.

  • It sometimes help to let your child sit upright
  • Your doctor can prescribe medication that you use in a nebuliser to help the airways to relax and to reduce inflammation

If you see the following other symptoms you should contact your doctor:

  • If you are unable to wake your child and he seems to struggle to breathe or has a bluish colour of the lips, tongue or nails you should either go to the emergency room or consider calling an ambulance.
  • If your baby is younger than three months old; in fact, any baby younger than three months with a fever should be seen by a doctor
  • IF breathing is faster than usual
  • A high fever, especially if your child is coughing without a runny nose
  • Stridor – this is noisy breathing or breathing sounds
  • If baby is wheezing while breathing or coughing
  • If coughed up mucus contains blood
  • If your baby seems really sick and tired and is not playing as always
  • If baby refuses to eat and drink
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Christine Klynhans is a midwife and lactation consultant with a firm believe that gentle parenting can change the world. She has worked in midwifery since competing her B.Cur nursing degree in 2004, and has a special passion for education and for writing. She currently works in a well-baby clinic and give antenatal classes and breastfeeding support. She enjoys working with parents of babies and toddlers, aiming to help them find gentle solutions to their parenting problems and assisting them in incorporating healthy habits and natural health alternatives into their daily lives.