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What Does a Cough Mean?

NightLight · February 29, 2016

How To Tell What Different Coughs Mean

At this time of year, it’s not uncommon to hear our children (or spouses or friends) coughing. A cough as a sole symptom can be a sign of many different things. It is also your body’s nature reflex to clear the airways and prevent infections and allergens from getting into the lungs.

Dry coughs, for example, could indicate an irritation like an environmental allergen. It might be a result of breathing dry air, which happens indoors when the heater is on. In some cases, a dry cough might be a symptom of asthma. If the cough comes with mucous or phlegm, it is called a wet or productive cough.

The Key to determining if your child’s cough is something that needs to be checked is determined in large part by what other signs and symptoms they have.

Most of the time a cough is just a symptom of a cold (also known as an Upper respiratory infection) the vast majority of which are caused by common viruses. Cough or cold medicines may temporarily help your little one feel a little better, however, if your child is less than 6 years of age the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends supportive care without traditional cough medications. Cough medications with honey as the main therapeutic ingredient are recommended for children older than 1 year of age.

Qualities of the cough or associated symptoms that should prompt you to seek medical evaluation of the cough include:

  1. A barky (seal like) cough. This is indicative of a condition called croup
  2. Rapid breathing especially when this persists despite the absence of fever
  3. Retractions = use of muscles between/ around ribs and in stomach area to breath
  4. Wheezing = high pitched whistling noise
  5. Your child looks like they are struggling to breath
  6. Prolonged cough with gagging or gasp at the end

Most coughs last only a short time. 7 days average is normal. If your child’s cough is prolonged, greater than 10 days and worsening, allergies and other causes need to be considered.

When should you come to us? If your doctor’s office is closed and any of the above (a-f) occur or your cough is prolonged.

When should you go to the ER or call 911? If your child stops breathing, if your child is struggling to breath to the point of not being able to speak, if your child turns blue around the lips, or if your child’s retractions are severe.

To avoid spreading germs, remind everyone to cover their mouths when they cough using their elbow so as not to pass hand to hand. It is always a good idea to continue to wash hands with soap and water often.

Finally, we recommend and encourage parents not to smoke around kids because it worse a cough and make it more difficult for them to fight infections.