Briefly discusses causes of coughs in children, including common cold, bronchitis, pneumonia, asthma, allergies, choking, or chemicals in the air. Offers interactive tool to help decide when to seek care. Also offers home treatment and prevention tips.
Coughs, Age 11 and Younger
Coughing is the body's way of removing foreign material or mucus from
the lungs and upper airway passages or of reacting to an
irritated airway. Coughs have distinctive traits you can learn to recognize. A
cough is only a symptom, not a disease, and often the importance of a cough can
be determined only when other symptoms are evaluated.
A productive cough produces phlegm
or mucus (sputum). The mucus may have drained down the back of the throat from
the nose or sinuses or may have come up
from the lungs. A productive cough generally should not be suppressed; it
clears mucus from the lungs. There are many causes of a productive cough, such
Viral illnesses. It is normal to have a productive cough when you
have a common cold. Coughing is often triggered by mucus that drains down the
back of the throat.
Nasal discharge (postnasal drip) draining down the back of the throat. This can cause a productive cough or make your child feel the
need to clear his or her throat frequently. Experts disagree about whether a
postnasal drip or the viral illness that caused it is responsible for the
A nonproductive cough is dry
and does not produce sputum. A dry, hacking cough may develop toward the end of
a cold or after exposure to an irritant, such as dust or smoke. There are many
causes of a nonproductive cough, such as:
Viral illnesses. After a common cold, a dry cough may last
several weeks longer than other symptoms and often gets worse at night.
Bronchospasm. A nonproductive cough, particularly at night, may
mean spasms in the bronchial tubes (bronchospasm) caused by
Asthma. A chronic dry cough may be a sign of mild
asthma. Other symptoms may include wheezing, shortness of breath, or a feeling
of tightness in the chest. For more information, see the topic
Asthma in Children.
Exposure to secondhand smoke from parents or caregivers who
Emotional or psychological problems. A dry, nonproductive
"psychogenic cough" is seen more frequently in children than in adults.
Many coughs are caused by a viral illness. Antibiotics
are not used to treat viral illnesses and do not change the course of viral
infections. Unnecessary use of an antibiotic exposes your child to the risks of
allergic reaction and antibiotic side effects, such as
nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, rashes, and yeast infections. Antibiotics also may
kill beneficial bacteria and encourage the development of dangerous
evaluation of your child's health may help you identify other symptoms.
Remember, a cough is only a symptom, not a disease, and often the importance of
a cough can only be determined when other symptoms are evaluated. Coughs occur
bacterial and viral respiratory infections. If your
child has other symptoms, such as a sore throat, sinus pressure, or ear pain,
see the Related Topics section.
Taking a rectal temperature is the only way to be sure that a baby this age does not have a fever. If you don't know the rectal temperature, it's safest to assume the baby has a fever and needs to be seen by a doctor. Any problem that causes a fever at this age could be serious.
Rectal temperature taken
Rectal temperature taken
Is it 100.4°F (38°C) or higher?
Temperature at least 100.4°F (38°C)
Temperature at least 100.4°F (38°C)
When your child is coughing, does his or her face turn blue or purple?
Color changes to blue or purple when coughing
Color changes to blue or purple when coughing
Is your baby eating less than usual?
Change in eating habits
Change in eating habits
Has your baby had a cough for more than 1 full day (24 hours)?
Sudden drooling and trouble swallowing can be signs of a
serious problem called epiglottitis. This problem can
happen at any age.
The epiglottis is a flap of tissue at the back
of the throat that you can't see when you look in the mouth. When you swallow, it closes to keep food and fluids out of the
tube (trachea) that leads to the lungs. If the epiglottis becomes inflamed or
infected, it can swell and quickly block the airway. This makes it very hard to
The symptoms start suddenly. A person with epiglottitis
is likely to seem very sick, have a fever, drool, and have trouble breathing,
swallowing, and making sounds. In the case of a child, you may notice the child
trying to sit up and lean forward with his or her jaw forward, because it's
easier to breathe in this position.
Symptoms of serious illness may
A severe headache.
Mental changes, such as feeling confused or much less
Extreme fatigue (to the point where it's hard for you to
Symptoms of serious illness in a baby
may include the following:
The baby is limp and floppy like a rag doll.
The baby doesn't respond at all to being held, touched, or talked
The baby is hard to wake up.
Temperature varies a little depending on how you measure it.
For children up to 11 years old, here are the ranges for high, moderate, and
mild according to how you took the temperature.
Oral (by mouth), ear, or rectal temperature
104 °F (40 °C) and
100.4 °F (38 °C) to
103.9 °F (39.9 °C)
100.3 °F (37.9 °C) and
Armpit (axillary) temperature
High: 103°F (39.5°C) and higher
99.4 °F (37.4 °C) to
102.9 °F (39.4 °C)
Mild: 99.3°F (37.3°C) and lower
Note: For children under 5 years old, rectal temperatures are
the most accurate.
A baby that is extremely sick:
May be limp and floppy like a rag
May not respond at all to being held, touched, or talked
May be hard to wake up.
A baby that is sick (but not extremely
May be sleepier than usual.
May not eat
or drink as much as usual.
If you're not sure if a child's fever is high, moderate, or
mild, think about these issues:
With a high fever:
The child feels very hot.
It is likely
one of the highest fevers the child has ever had.
With a moderate fever:
The child feels warm or hot.
sure the child has a fever.
With a mild fever:
The child may feel a little warm.
think the child might have a fever, but you're not sure.
You can use a small rubber bulb (called an aspirating bulb)
to remove mucus from your baby's nose or mouth when a
cold or allergies make it hard for the baby to eat, sleep, or breathe.
To use the bulb:
Put a few saline nose drops in each side of the
baby's nose before you start.
Position the baby with his or her
head tilted slightly back.
Squeeze the round base of the
Gently insert the tip of the bulb tightly inside the baby's
Release the bulb to remove (suction) mucus from the
Don't do this more than 5 or 6 times a day. Doing it too often
can make the congestion worse and can also cause the lining of the nose to
swell or bleed.
Severe trouble breathing means:
The child cannot eat or talk because he or she is
breathing so hard.
The child's nostrils are flaring and the belly
is moving in and out with every breath.
The child seems to be
The child seems very sleepy or confused.
Moderate trouble breathing means:
The child is breathing a lot faster than
The child has to take breaks from eating or talking to
The nostrils flare or the belly moves in and out at times
when the child breathes.
Mild trouble breathing means:
The child is breathing a little faster than usual.
The child seems a little out of breath but can still eat or talk.
Symptoms of difficulty breathing in a baby or young child can range from mild to severe. For example:
The child may be breathing a little faster than usual (mild difficulty breathing), or the child may be having so much trouble that the nostrils are flaring and the belly is moving in and out with every breath (severe difficulty breathing).
The child may seem a little out of breath but is still able to eat or talk (mild difficulty breathing), or the child may be breathing so hard that he or she cannot eat or talk (severe difficulty breathing).
Symptoms of difficulty breathing can range from mild to severe. For example:
You may feel a little out of breath but still be able to talk (mild difficulty breathing), or you may be so out of breath that you cannot talk at all (severe difficulty breathing).
It may be getting hard to breathe with activity (mild difficulty breathing), or you may have to work very hard to breathe even when you’re at rest (severe difficulty breathing).
Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind
of care you may need. These include:
Your age. Babies and older
adults tend to get sicker quicker.
Your overall health. If you have a condition such as diabetes, HIV, cancer, or heart
disease, you may need to pay closer attention to certain symptoms and seek care
Medicines you take. Certain
medicines, herbal remedies, and supplements can cause symptoms or make them
Recent health events, such as surgery
or injury. These kinds of events can cause symptoms afterwards or make them
Your health habits and lifestyle, such as eating and exercise habits, smoking, alcohol or drug
use, sexual history, and travel.
Try Home Treatment
You have answered all the questions. Based on your answers, you may be
able to take care of this problem at home.
Try home treatment to relieve the
Call your doctor if symptoms get worse or you have any
concerns (for example, if symptoms are not getting better as you would expect).
You may need care sooner.
Based on your answers, you may need care right away. The problem is likely to get worse without medical care.
Call your doctor now to discuss the symptoms and
arrange for care.
If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have
one, seek care in the next hour.
You do not need to call an
You cannot travel safely either by driving
yourself or by having someone else drive you.
You are in an area
where heavy traffic or other problems may slow you down.
Call 911 Now
Based on your answers, you need
Call911or other emergency services now.
Coughing is the body's way of removing
foreign substances and
mucus from the
lungs and upper airway passages. Productive coughs are often useful, and you
should not try to eliminate them. Sometimes, though, coughs are severe enough
to impair breathing or prevent rest. Home treatment can help your child feel
more comfortable when he or she has a cough.
dehydration. Fluids may help soothe an irritated
throat. Honey or lemon juice in hot water or tea may help a dry, hacking cough.
Do not give honey to children younger than 1 year of age. It may contain bacteria that are harmful to babies.
Cough and cold medicines may not be safe for young children. Before you give them to a child, check the label. If you do give these medicines to a child, always follow the directions about how much to give based on the child's age and weight. These medicines may help with your child's symptoms, but they don't help your child get better faster. For more information, see Quick Tips: Giving Over-the-Counter Medicines to Children.
If your child's doctor
tells you to give a medicine, be sure to follow what he or she tells you to do.
How much medicine to take and how often to take it may be very different for
children than for adults.
Do not give your child leftover
antibiotics, or antibiotics or medicines that were prescribed for someone
If your child has a barking cough during the night, you can
help him or her breathe better by following the home treatment for a
Hold your child in a calming manner.
Keep your child quiet, if possible. Crying can make breathing more
difficult. Try rocking or distracting your child with a book or game.
humidifier to add moisture to the air. Do not use a
hot vaporizer. Use only water in the humidifier. Hold your child in your lap,
and let the cool vapor blow directly into your child's face.
If there is no improvement after several minutes, take the child
into the bathroom and turn on the shower to create steam. Close the door and
stay in the room while he or she breathes in the moist air for several
minutes. Make sure your child is not burned by the hot water or steam. Do not
leave your child alone in the bathroom.
If there is still no improvement, bundle your child up and go
outside in the cool night air.
Talk to your child's doctor before switching back and
forth between doses of acetaminophen and ibuprofen. When you switch between two
medicines, there is a chance your child will get too much medicine.
Be sure to follow these
safety tips when you use a nonprescription medicine:
Carefully read and follow all directions on the medicine
bottle and box.
Do not use more than the recommended dose.
Do not give your child a medicine if he or she has had an
allergic reaction to it in the past.
If your child goes to a day care center, ask the staff to wash
their hands often to prevent the spread of infection.
Make sure that your child gets all of his or her vaccinations,
especially for diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (DTaP) and for
Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib). For more
information, see the topic
Help your child avoid secondhand smoke. Don't allow smoking in your
home or around your child.
Try to avoid people who have colds or
flu. If one of your children is sick, separate him or her from other children
in the home, if possible. Put the child in a room alone to sleep.
How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.