Whether it resembles a bark, a wheeze, or a whoop, our little ones seem to cough on a near-constant basis during their first years. It’s an all-too-familiar sound for the mother of a young baby, and it often results in a heightened sense of anxiety as she frantically tries to work out what’s wrong.
The good news is most baby coughs are nothing to worry about. In fact, studies have shown that due to their underdeveloped immune systems, babies get an average of eight colds a year, which is the most common cause of the baby cough.
But not all coughs come from the common cold; some are a symptom of something more sinister. And with that in mind, it’s prudent for any parent to understand the causes, symptoms, preventions, and treatments for a baby cough to protect their precious little ones.
- What Causes A Baby Cough?
- What Are the Symptoms of a Baby Cough?
- How to Treat a Baby Cough
- What Not To Give a Baby to Treat a Cough
- How to Prevent a Baby Cough
- When Should You Worry About Your Baby’s Cough
- Baby Cough: Causes, Symptoms, Treatments, & Prevention
What Causes A Baby Cough?
Although viral respiratory tract infections are by far the most common, several other ailments can cause your baby to cough as well.
A viral respiratory tract infection, most typically a cold or flu, is by far the most common cause of baby cough. During the delicate early years of life, our babies haven’t had the time for their immune systems to develop defenses against all the different germs out there. As a result, pretty much every strain of cold or flu they come into contact with—over 200 different types are floating around out there—will see them fall sick. In the first year of life, the average baby gets up to eight colds, although some unlucky ones suffer as many as twelve.
The second most common cause of a baby cough is asthma, which is a typical respiratory condition among young children that affects approximately one in four. Asthma occurs when the small air passages in the lungs become narrower due to swelling and inflammation, which prompts the body to produce more mucus. As a result, a child or baby with asthma will find it more difficult to breathe and develop a wheezing-like cough. Luckily, you can reduce the symptoms through treatment, and many children will eventually grow out of it.
One possible cause of a coughing baby is allergies, which come from environmental allergens that waft through the air, such as dust mites, pollens, and mold. Although allergies to environmental allergens tend to present themselves later during toddlerhood, babies can suffer from the ailment as well. Another common type is food allergies, which afflict children of all ages but won’t result in a cough. Allergies tend to be hereditary, so if either or both parents have issues, chances are the child will too.
Environmental factors can irritate a baby’s throat and lungs, resulting in a nasty and persistent cough. Cold air, smoke, and pollution are the most common irritants, so it’s crucial to protect your baby from these as much as possible. Another potential cause for cough is when a baby accidentally inhales a foreign object such as a strand of dog hair, which gets caught in the throat.
A Habit Cough
After a baby recovers from a cold or flu, it may develop a habit cough that persists for months or years to come. The habit cough—A.K.A, a somatic cough, psychogenic cough, or tic cough—most commonly occurs in school-age children, although it’s occasionally found in babies as well.
Bacterial Respiratory Tract Infection
Even though rare, a baby may suffer from a bacterial respiratory tract infection in the chest or throat, which results in a nasty cough. Babies may fend off these infections by themselves, or a doctor could intervene to prescribe antibiotics. One of the most severe bacterial respiratory tract infections is whooping cough, which is highly contagious and requires hospitalization for babies under six months.
What Are the Symptoms of a Baby Cough?
The sound of the cough and the associated symptoms depend on the cause of the cough. A parent may be able to get an idea about what is causing their child to cough, but it’s necessary to consult with a doctor for a reliable diagnosis.
A Common Cold or Flu
A cough that comes from a viral respiratory tract infection, such as a cold or flu, will sound ‘loose’ and may cause the baby to cough up mucus. This symptom often becomes worse at night because mucus drips from the back of the throat and mouth as the baby lies down, causing it to fall into the windpipe. After fighting off the flu, a baby can continue coughing for several weeks, which is known as a post-viral cough.
An asthmatic cough results in a ‘wheezing’ sound and is usually accompanied by difficulty breathing and shortness of breath. Asthmatic coughs often increase in intensity at night and after exercise for toddlers and children. However, it’s challenging to diagnose alone: a wheezing-like cough is common among babies and children and doesn’t necessarily signify the onset of asthma. Furthermore, a cough accompanied by difficulty breathing could be a symptom of bronchitis.
If your baby struggles to breathe, becomes distressed, limp, or exhausted, or does deep sucking movements on each breath, they could be suffering from a severe asthmatic episode. Call an ambulance immediately.
Allergies and Irritations
Coughs caused by allergies and irritations tend to be somewhat consistent, but will significantly intensify when the allergen in question comes in contact with the baby. Before a cough kicks in, the infant will suffer the usual symptoms of allergies, which may include watery eyes, congestion, an itchy nose, ear pain, and sneezing. The sudden onset of a violent cough with wheezing or choking sounds may mean the baby has inhaled a foreign object, which requires immediate attention.
A habit cough will present as a ‘honking’ sound with high frequency—several times a minute— while the baby is awake, but it will immediately cease as soon as the baby falls asleep. Habit coughs are rare in babies and tend to occur much more often in school-aged children.
Bacterial Respiratory Tract Infection
If your baby suffers from severe flu-like symptoms and later develops a violent and persistent cough, then there may be a bacterial respiratory tract infection at play. If you hear a ‘barking’ sound as the baby breathes out and a ‘whooping’ sound when it breathes in, then it’s possible your child is suffering from whooping cough. Seek medical advice immediately.
How to Treat a Baby Cough
The optimal treatment for baby cough depends on the cause.
Nevertheless, there are a few general treatments we can use to repress our little one’s cough without the risk of doing them harm:
- A spoonful of honey at bedtime can alleviate soreness and soothe the throat. Not suitable for children under 12 months
- Children’s Tylenol and Ibuprofen can help provide relief if your baby has a fever, although you should always consult your doctor when a fever is detected.
- Nasal saline drops and bulb aspirators can suction a runny nose, perfect for a baby who isn’t able to blow their own nose yet.
- Warm water, juice, or decaffeinated tea can help soothe the tickle in the back of the throat, thus reduce coughing.
Before administering any medical treatment, it’s imperative to first seek advice from your doctor. Although baby cough symptoms may seem easy to diagnose at home, many are deceptively difficult to identify, and prescribing the wrong treatment could do more harm than good.
A Common Cold or Flu
Viral respiratory tract infections are usually quite mild, and the baby’s immune system will eventually work out a way to fend it off without intervention. Therefore, no specific treatment is necessary. You’ll often find the baby will continue to cough for some time after the infection has cleared. This common phenomenon is called a post-viral cough and isn’t anything to worry about.
Upon diagnosing a baby with asthma through a lung function test, a doctor will develop an Asthma Action Plan that includes a range of treatments to combat the condition. The preferred therapy will vary depending on the baby’s age and symptoms. Typical treatments can consist of relievers such as the inhaler Ventolin or preventers and/or controllers in either inhaler or tablet form.
If your baby suffers severely from some sort of allergic reaction, but you can’t figure out what, then keep a record of your little one’s symptoms, including where they appear and when, then discuss the different possibilities with your doctor. An allergist (allergies specialist) may be able to help in some cases. A doctor may prescribe antihistamines or an inhaler to treat an allergy-related cough.
A habit cough is psychological rather than physical, so there’s no medication on the market to clear one up. Older children with severe cases may benefit from counseling, hypnosis, or distraction. Of course, babies are too young for these sorts of psychiatric therapies, but the good news is that habit coughs in infants tend to go away by themselves.
Bacterial Respiratory Tract Infection
Baby coughs caused by a bacterial respiratory tract infection require swift medical intervention. Take your baby to your doctor, who will diagnose the symptoms and prescribe a course of antibiotics in most situations. Never administer antibiotics yourself without authorization from a licensed healthcare practitioner to avoid jeopardizing your little one’s well-being. Whooping cough in a baby is life-threatening and requires immediate hospitalization.
What Not To Give a Baby to Treat a Cough
Now that you know what to give your baby to treat a cough, let’s take a look at what not to give your little one.
Cough syrup and babies don’t mix—and that includes any other kind of liquid cough suppressant as well. Although these medications can work wonders on adults and big kids, they contain too many potent chemical compounds to be safe for toddlers and babies. Never give cough medicine to a child under six.
Antibiotics are our last line of defense in defeating stubborn bacterial respiratory tract infections such as sinusitis. But that doesn’t mean we can use them whenever we like because it’s crucial to save antibiotics for when they’re really needed. Always follow the advice of your doctor and only administer antibiotics when instructed to do so.
Parents everywhere love dishing out a spoonful or two of honey at bedtime to stop their little ones spluttering the night away. And although this time-old home remedy is effective, it’s not recommended for babies under 12 months old. In infants, honey can provoke a rare and potentially fatal illness called botulism, so it’s best to save the sweet gooey nectar for when they’re a bit older.
Vaporizers and Humidifiers
Neither humidifiers, which use cold water to create a cool mist, or vaporizers, which heat up water to create steam, have been shown to help alleviate baby cough. Furthermore, a baby might swallow the vaporizer solution by mistake or burn themselves on the steam, which is why manufacturers don’t recommend these products for tots under two.
How to Prevent a Baby Cough
“Prevention is better than cure,” as the old saying goes. And the adage certainly applies to a baby’s cough. To help your tot avoid contracting a cough in the first place, consider the following strategies:
Unfortunately, it’s pretty much impossible to stop your baby contracting a cold or flu during the early years. Their curious little brains and complete lack of hygiene awareness prompt them to put everything imaginable in their mouth, which fast-tracks the spread of viral infections. And considering there are several hundred virus types out there to which you’re baby has zero immunity, getting sick is all but guaranteed. Incessantly disinfecting surfaces around the baby may slightly reduce the frequency of viral infections, although it’s debatable whether it’s worth the effort, and means they may not get exposed to enough viruses to gain immunity in the future.
Your doctor’s Asthma Action Plan can reduce the severity of a baby’s asthmatic cough. A doctor may recommend you use a preventer inhaler such as Flixotide or Pulmicort, which you’ll administer daily to suppress coughing. In addition, a symptom controller such as Serevent or Formoterol may also help alleviate symptoms.
Preventing babies—or anyone else—from suffering allergies is simple: reduce their exposure to the allergens in question. Sadly, however, it’s not always obvious what’s causing the allergy, so you’ll need to monitor your baby closely and perhaps consult with a doctor or allergist. Common allergens to clean up include dust mites, pollens, mold, and animal hair, especially hair from cats. Pay close attention to cracks beside your baby’s crib and its favorite plush toys as these could be packed full of dust mites.
Likewise, the key to preventing your baby from irritants is to remove these elements from its environment. Cigarette smoking is a significant irritant and has been shown to wreak havoc on young lungs, so smoking inside the house is a definite no-no. Air pollution can also cause a baby to cough, so it’s worth investing in an air purifier if you live in a big city with poor air quality. Even perfumes can irritate a baby’s lungs; be mindful of how much you spray around and where.
Bacterial Respiratory Tract Infections
There’s not much you can do to prevent a baby from contracting a bacterial respiratory tract infection, but thankfully, their occurrence is rather rare. The best thing you can do is provide your little one with a well-balanced diet to bolster their immune system to fend off infections on their own.
Inhaling Foreign Objects
At best, inhaling a foreign object will irritate your baby’s throat and provoke a cough; at worst, it’s a lethal choking hazard. Mitigate the risk by not giving your baby dangerous foods like whole nuts or letting them play with small toys they can easily swallow.
When Should You Worry About Your Baby’s Cough
Although the vast majority of coughs are a side effect of the common cold, some baby coughs can be quite dangerous and may require a trip to your doctor. Play it safe and take your baby in to get checked out if they’ve got any of the following symptoms:
- A cough that persists for longer than two weeks
- A cough that begins suddenly
- A severe cough that interferes with the baby’s sleep or everyday life
- A cough accompanied by respiratory problems such as difficulty breathing
- A high fever
- A change in skin color, such as becoming pale or turning blue
- A cough within the first few weeks of life
- Weight loss, coughing blood, or night sweats
- A hacking cough without fast breathing or wheezing
Baby Cough: Causes, Symptoms, Treatments, & Prevention
A baby cough is most frequently caused by a viral respiratory tract infection such as the common cold, which will go away on its own within a few weeks. Some cough symptoms, however, are more sinister, so it’s best to get a diagnosis from your family doctor.