- Table of Contents
- 1. What are the causes of cough?
- 2. Possible reasons for kids’ cough
- 3. Home remedies for kids cough
- 4. Conclusion
We expect our kids to cough when they’ve got a cold or allergies. They also get a runny nose and maybe a fever. Sometimes they are fussy or won’t sleep well during the night much to our dismay! Long after the fever, fussiness and runny nose are gone, however, we note things have not gotten better and you need to stop the child’s cough. That’s when our parental “spidey-sense” kicks in, “Is my baby ok? what is the cause of cough for him? How do I stop my kid’s cough?”
What are the causes of cough in children?
First, we have to recognize that coughing is not our enemy, however, we need to look for remedies and stop kids’ cough. Coughing makes sure we can breathe easily. If our airway doesn’t feel 100% clear from the very top of our nose down to the distant tips of our lungs, our body reflexively coughs to smooth out the road.
Mucus running down the back of our throat/upper airway, known as a postnasal drip, can make the end of our throat bumpy, so our body tries to clear it by coughing. This is one reason why doctors like to get a good look at the back of your child’s throat. If we see bumps, it might help us figure out why your child is coughing.
There may be a blockage in our lungs/lower airways, like when we swallow food down our windpipe. Another possibility is inflammation in our lungs from allergies or an infection like pneumonia. Our lungs respond by trying to “push out” these unwanted intruders through coughing.
So what’s making your child’s airway feel like it isn’t clear? More importantly, what can you do to stop kids cough?
Possible reasons for cough in children
Let’s break down the possible reasons for cough in children into two large groups: infectious or non-infectious agents.
When we’re around someone who coughs or sneezes, that person’s saliva or mucus can land in our nose, mouth, or eyes. That infectious agent then enters the cells of our body and starts the infection process through our mucus membranes.
Children easily get infections because they “transport” infectious agents directly into their noses and mouths with their hands and fingers. They also touch toys and objects that other little hands have touched, coughed, sneezed, or drooled over.
Reminding our kids not to put their fingers in their mouths or pick their noses is always helpful to prevent infection. Since that battle can be a difficult one, we can at least try to win the handwashing battle!
Also, keep in mind that our infant’s and toddler’s immune systems are still young and naive. They tend to get sick more frequently until their bodies strengthen their immune systems over their first few years.
Remember, any type of infection comes with a fever: a temperature higher than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit taken rectally in infants/toddlers or orally in older kids. Our immune system mounts a frenzy to try to fight off the infection before it spreads all over our bodies. That’s why pediatricians will often tell you that fever on its own is not worrisome. It’s a sign that the body is fighting an infection.
Viruses and bacteria are the two most common types of infectious causes of cough in children.
Viral infections will self-resolve within 7 to 10 days. You may have heard your pediatrician tell you that a viral infection does not require antibiotics. That’s because a virus takes over our body’s cells to do its work. Once our body’s immune response has prevented these cells from replicating, the infection ends. Think of colds, flu, croup & RSV bronchiolitis.
Bacterial infections will most likely require an evaluation by your child’s pediatrician because bacteria have the “machinery” built in to keep replicating despite our body’s immune response. Symptoms may not resolve without antibiotics. Think of ear infections, sinusitis, bronchitis, and pneumonia.
A non–infectious cough will usually come without a fever since it is not an infectious invader. Instead, these agents irritate the airway and make our body reflexively respond with a cough to “clear the way” and help us breathe comfortably.
Here are a few sources that are the causes of cough in children, but are not infectious:
When our nose comes into contact with pollen or dust or any other environmental allergen, it produces mucus to try to “trap it” from getting further into our bodies, just like with infection. Read more below about how you can manage allergies caused by dust.
Symptoms include clear mucus (not usually thick yellow/green), itchy/watery eyes, and sneezing. Our body “turns on the waterworks,” trying to flush the invader. Coughing due to allergies is usually worse when lying down because mucus will drip down the back of our throats (postnasal drip.) Thus, allergy coughs may be worse at night or right in the morning when we waking up.
Cool mist humidifiers, steamy showers, and an elevated head in older kids are helping to manage postnasal drip here just like we discussed above. Do keep up with any medications or management regimens recommended by your pediatrician. With allergies, it is a lot more effective to prevent symptoms than face the consequences.
Those who have asthma know that feeling of being unable to take a deep breath because the lung’s airways feel tight or closed. Wheezing or coughing happens when the body is trying to push the airways open to get more air into the lungs.
Irritation of the airways that leads to them reacting and “clamping down” can result from contact with allergens (again, the body trying to push out the invader), changes in weather, exposure to inhaled irritants (see below), or even exercise.
Stomach acid can come up into the back of the throat irritating its lining and upper airway. Your child may not be able to describe heartburn or may not show symptoms of wet-burps/frequent burping. GERD can be silent as well. This leads to a cough that is worse when lying down. This is when the acid doesn’t have to defy gravity to back up into the throat.
GERD as a cause of cough may be hard to detect. It can sometimes be misdiagnosed as allergies since both sources will cause irritation in the same area of the body.
You’ll want to talk to your doctor about recurring nighttime cough, especially if that allergy regimen isn’t doing the trick.
We may all may recall situations in which our body reacted with a cough when exposed to smoke, dust, or pungent chemicals. These are examples of inhaled irritants. Our common sense reaction is to “get away” from the agent if we identify it (like smoke in a fire or a strong smell of bleach). Sometimes though, that’s easier said than done.
For families where somebody smokes, for example, it’s important for that family member not to smoke in the car or house as smoke can settle on furniture, clothes, and on our bodies. This can cause ongoing irritation in the airways of our kids causing allergy and asthma flares.
I tell parents to step outside to smoke (close the door and don’t let your child follow you out to play.) Wear a hat and jacket that you can then remove and hang outside the door before coming back inside. This keeps a lot of the smoke from coming back into the house. Once back inside, wash your hands and face, especially if you have a mustache or beard.
We know that second-hand smoke can cause more ear infections and asthma attacks in children. Unfortunately, it also increases the risk of SIDS.
Dust can wreak havoc for our kids with allergies and asthma. It settles in carpets, bedding, and stuffed animals, not to mention the dust we see collecting on our bookshelves & tables. Sometimes we have to take a stronger approach to remove dust from our children’s environments by pulling out carpets in kids’ bedrooms and installing hardwood floors.
We may also need to look into encasements for pillows and mattresses that are hypoallergenic and can be cleaned down with a damp cloth or washed in the washing machine to remove dust mites.
Though our kids might want to have many stuffed animals on their beds, it’s better to rotate one stuffed animal at a time on their bed while you wash the dust away from the one that was there just before.
Talk to your doctor about recommendations if you think dust may be one of the causes of cough for your child and get recommendations for cough remedies.
Another cause of irritation are foreign bodies such as swallowed food and then beginning to cough to clear the airway. Sometimes a child can swallow a small piece of food or a small toy that gets lodged in the lungs but it’s not enough to block the entire airway.
Your child can be perfectly happy playing, eating, and sleeping, but keeps coughing for days as the body tries to dislodge this foreign object. Finally, a visit to your doctor will lead to the answer after x-rays or sometimes even a look down the airway with a camera scope!
home remedies to stop kids cough
Nasal saline & bulb suction
Nasal saline and bulb suction, cool mist humidifier, and steamy showers all help loosen up the mucus, so it doesn’t irritate the back of the airway—this aids in reducing the cough.
Unfortunately, studies don’t show a benefit of diffused oils in helping our kids with runny nose and cough. The different scents can sometimes irritate the top of their tiny noses, which can worsen the cough. A little bit of baby Vicks, mentholated rub, is ok to use in children over the age of two.
Honey can be used in children over one year of age to thin the mucus and loosen the cough. However, under one year of age, there is a risk for the spores in the honey to lead to infantile botulism.
American Academy of Pediatrics doesn’t recommend over-the-counter cough and cold medications under the age of 4. (This may be hard to believe, given all the options in the isles at the drugstores!).
Elevate the Head
If your child is older, it’s okay to elevate the head using a pillow to prevent postnasal drip. Remember, don’t use pillows or soft surfaces for infants in a crib. They need to be sleeping on a firm flat surface to prevent SIDS!)
Tylenol or Ibuprofen
Headache, fussiness, and fatigue can result from the infection spreading throughout the body. Our kids just don’t feel good. It’s generally ok to give kids and infants over six months of age Tylenol or Ibuprofen to help them feel better but do confirm with your pediatrician beforehand.
The cough will usually be the last symptom to go away after infection (days to weeks later). It’s the body’s way of making sure the airway is clear before the coughing stops. You should call your pediatrician for fevers lasting longer than three days or if symptoms are getting worse instead of better as the days go on.
Our bodies will produce a cough to keep our airway clear so that we can breathe easily. Once we recognize that, we can take the next step to get to the bottom of figuring out what is causing the aggravation of our airway.
If the cough seems to linger after an infection or if it was never accompanied by an infection at all, it is a good idea to take your child to see their pediatrician. Your doctor will be able to evaluate your child and get them on track to stop kids’ cough!