Understanding coughs in babies and children
When your baby or toddler has a cough, it can be very distressing for you both. Whether it’s a tiny tickle in your little one’s throat, or a cough keeping the family up at night, it’s good to know what may be causing it and what to do about it. A cough in children is their body’s way of reacting to irritation in the airways. The cough itself is not necessarily a bad thing – it is a normal response by the body to something that it doesn’t want there, such as mucus (phlegm) or a foreign object. Coughing is an important reflex because it helps to remove the irritant from the windpipe.
Common causes for a child’s cough
Children cough for all sorts of reasons. Some of the most common causes include:
Cold and Flu
It’s common for young children to have multiple colds a year. Hundreds of different viruses can cause a cold and children slowly build immunity to these viruses as they encounter them. Most colds last between 5 to 10 days and your little one could experience sniffles, a sore throat, fever, and headaches as they recover. A child’s body produces a lot of mucus as it fights off a cold and coughing is the body’s way of trying to clear that mucus away as it trickles down the back of the throat. This cough is normal and can sometimes last a few weeks after the other symptoms have gone away.
Hay fever – seasonal allergies caused by grass and tree pollen – causes a chronic runny nose, watery eyes, and an itchy throat in children. Hay fever can sometimes cause a child to cough too. As the excess mucus in the nose trickles down the back of your child’s throat, they will feel the need to cough to clear it away. Hay fever is often worse during spring and summer when there is a higher level of pollen in the air. Common household allergens such as dust-mites and mould can also cause allergy symptoms throughout the year. Reducing your child’s exposure to allergens or removing any obvious allergens, such as dust or mould from your child’s environment may help reduce their allergy symptoms.
Reflux can cause a burning feeling in the chest5 and can make children cough.5 This can happen when the acidic contents of the stomach travel back through the throat and trigger the natural cough reflex. Your child may complain of a “tummy ache” since they may be too young to describe the burning sensation in their chest. If you suspect reflux, speak to your doctor about possible treatments.
When to call the doctor
Most of the time coughing in babies and toddlers is usually caused by something benign, but call your doctor if your child:
- Seems unwell and you are concerned
- Has a high fever
- Has difficulty breathing
- Is not drinking very much or has fewer wet nappies than usual
- Has a cough that lasts for many weeks and you are worried
If your child coughs up blood, seek medical help immediately.
How to relieve the discomfort of a cough in babies and children
Here are some tips to help relieve the discomfort of your child’s cough while they have a cold:
- Keep your child well-hydrated to help loosen the mucus
- Warm lemon tea with honey may also help to soothe the throat and chest irritation caused by coughing
- Do not give cough medicine to babies or toddlers. There are some cough medicines that may be used in children over the age of 6, for example:
- expectorants (which help loosen mucus in wet coughs) and
- cough-suppressants (which inhibit the cough reflex in the case of a dry cough)
Speak to your doctor or pharmacist about which type of cough medicine is suitable for your child’s cough.
Learnt something new? Share this article with another parent who might need this information too.
This article is for general information only and not intended as a substitute for medical advice. All information presented on these web pages is not meant to diagnose or prescribe. In all health-related matters, always consult your healthcare professional.