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.
For information about coughs in teens and adults, see the topic Coughs, Age 12 and Older.
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 as:
A non-productive 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 non-productive cough, such as:
Children may develop coughs from diseases or causes that usually do not affect adults, such as:
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 an 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 antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
A careful 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 with 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.
Check your child's symptoms to decide if and when your child should see a doctor.
Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind of care you may need. These include:
You have answered all the questions. Based on your answers, you may be able to take care of this problem at home.
Symptoms of serious illness in a baby may include the following:
Symptoms of serious illness may include:
Severe trouble breathing means:
Moderate trouble breathing means:
Mild trouble breathing means:
Symptoms of difficulty breathing can range from mild to severe. For example:
Symptoms of difficulty breathing in a baby or young child can range from mild to severe. For example:
If you're not sure if a child's fever is high, moderate, or mild, think about these issues:
With a high fever:
With a moderate fever:
With a mild fever:
A baby that is extremely sick:
A baby that is sick (but not extremely sick):
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
A forehead (temporal) scanner is usually 0.3 C (0.5 F) to 0.6 C (1 F) lower than an oral temperature.
Armpit (axillary) temperature
Note: For children under 5 years old, rectal temperatures are the most accurate.
Certain health conditions and medicines weaken the immune system's ability to fight off infection and illness. Some examples in children are:
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:
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.
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 breathe.
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.
Based on your answers, you may need care right away. The problem is likely to get worse without medical care.
Based on your answers, you need emergency care.
or other emergency services now.
Based on your answers, you may need care soon. The problem probably will not get better without medical care.
Based on your answers, the problem may not improve without medical care.
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.
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 barking cough.
For more information on treating coughs and other respiratory problems, see the Home Treatment section of the topic Respiratory Problems, Age 11 and Younger.
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.
Call your child's doctor if any of the following occur during home treatment:
There is no sure way to prevent a cough. To help reduce your child's risk:
For information on preventing allergies or asthma, see the topic Allergic Rhinitis or Asthma in Children.
To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.
You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your child's condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:
ByHealthwise StaffPrimary Medical ReviewerWilliam H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency MedicineJohn Pope, MD - PediatricsAdam Husney, MD - Family MedicineKathleen Romito, MD - Family MedicineSpecialist Medical ReviewerDavid Messenger, MD
Current as ofMarch 20, 2017
Current as of: March 20, 2017
William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
& John Pope, MD - Pediatrics & Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine & Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine & David Messenger, MD
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
© 1995-2017 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.