Cough It Up: What to do when your baby has a cough

By Danielle Spano

Coughing is a natural reflex the body uses to clear the lungs and airways. But when a newborn coughs a parent’s first instinct is often to worry. Sometimes a cough is just a cough, and other times it calls for a trip to the doctor. Understanding what causes coughing and the different types of coughs will help you to determine how to help your little one.

Common causes of coughing

Coughing is symptomatic of many afflictions. The common cold, flu and other infections can all instigate coughing. While infants can have several colds in their first year, you should always consult your pediatrician, particularly when a baby under 3 months becomes ill as it can quickly develop into something more serious. The most common cause of chronic coughing in babies is asthma, which can be difficult to diagnose due to varying symptoms. Allergies from pollen, animals, dust and more can cause a cough associated with a runny nose and watery eyes. Some babies suffer from acid reflux and the irritation can lead to coughing spells. Even teething can trigger coughing. Serious causes include whooping cough, pneumonia and airway restriction from a foreign body.

Wet vs. Dry

The American Academy of Pediatrics distinguishes coughs by wet (with mucous) or dry (no mucous). Dry coughs are most common, with even healthy babies sporadically having dry coughs throughout the day to clear their airways. A persistent dry cough, however, could be a sign of illness or a condition, and should be observed by a doctor. A wet cough can be a sign of illness or infection and is often accompanied by other symptoms such as a runny nose and sore throat. Again, even simple colds can progress quickly in infants, so a trip to the doctor is recommended.

Sound

Coughs can also be distinguished by the sound they make. “One of the best ways to diagnose a cough is by listening,” Dr. Luis E. Scaccabarrozzi of Kids Doc Pediatrics said. “Knowing what the cough sounds like will help your doctor decide how to treat your child.”

A barking cough, which sounds like a seal barking, is typically associated with the croup, a viral infection that tends to have worse symptoms at night. In infants, a barking cough could also be a sign of an abnormal airway. A barking cough could be a sign your baby is sick as a dog, and a doctor visit is necessary.

Wheezing coughs — associated with a whistling sound — can be a sign of asthma, choking on a foreign object or bronchiolitis (an infection in the small airways in the lungs), and will require a physical exam. In premature babies, a wheezing cough can be a symptom of a chronic lung disease.

If your baby has been sick over a week and has coughing fits, she may have pertussis, commonly called Whooping Cough. In infants, the signature whooping noise is not prevalent, so do not dismiss this serious possibility for lack of the sound. Whooping cough is highly contagious, and babies under 6 months require hospitalization. The American College of Chest Physicians recommends you have any chronic cough investigated to ensure it is not symptomatic of something more serious, like asthma or a respiratory issue.

How to help

There are a few dos and don’ts for giving your infant some coughing relief.

  • Do use a cool mist humidifier in their bedroom when they sleep.
  • Do sit with your baby in the bathroom with a hot shower running so that the steam can help them breathe easier.
  • Do give your little one lots of love — nature’s best medicine.
  • Do not give any honey or honey-based products to any child under 1 year old for risk of infantile botulism.
  • Do not give your baby or toddler over-the-counter cold or cough medicine. These products are not approved by the Federal Drug Administration for babies and are not recommended for children under 6. Many cold medications contain multiple medicines (more than would be necessary to treat just a cough) and have greater side effects in children than adults. Additionally, it has not been proven that cough medicines effectively treat young children.

*Remember to always consult your doctor/pediatrician first.