Prevention & Recovery

How to identify types of coughs in kids

Author: Canadian Living

Prevention & Recovery

How to identify types of coughs in kids

The dry hack; the chesty heave; the pithy bark - these types of coughs and more represent myriad infections and conditions. If your child is coughing, do you know which kind of cough can be fixed with love and rest, and which kind needs a doctor?

Dr. Danielle Grenier, Medical Affairs Director of the Canadian Pediatric Society,
says most kids will pick up "the virus of the day", and present with a stuffy nose and dry cough. "Coughing itself is not dangerous, and a normal reflex to get rid of secretions," she explains. When a cough drags on past the 7 to 10 day mark, that's when something else is going on.

You know your child best - what do they look like? What are they acting like? If your child has a fever, is not feeding or eating, pale and especially fatigued, too noisy or wheezy when they breathe, it could mean they have an infection that needs medical help.

What's in a cough?
Below are some common ways a cough will present itself, and what could be the underlying issue:

1. The long coughing fit where your child or infant cannot draw breath
Possible cause: Pertussis, commonly known as the whooping cough
Pertussis is caused by a bacteria, not a virus like most coughs. Kids and adults tend to emit a 'whoop' sound between coughing fits as they try to draw breath, whereas infants tend to pause before turning red or blue from lack of oxygen according to Dr. Grenier. While most Canadians are immunized against pertussis as infants, this awful infection is experiencing a rise in the Canadian population. "Real whooping cough is 100 nights and 100 days of coughing," says Dr. Grenier. "The best protection is getting your immunizations up to date." This includes infants, kids, teens and adults.

2. The dry cough
Possible cause: Seasonal virus, allergies, asthma
Often feeling like a tickle in the back of the throat, a dry cough is not in itself dangerous, but a natural and normal reaction to secretions in the respiratory tract. Dr. Grenier suggests lots of fluids to help alleviate the dry cough, and discourages overuse of cough medicines. "They need to get rid of the secretions," she explains. "It's not the cough we worry about - it's a cough with respiratory distress [we worry about]."

3. The nighttime 'barky' cough, with wheezing while inhaling
Possible cause: Croup or laryngitis
Croup - or laryngitis - is an inflammation of the larynx (voice box) and trachea (windpipe) commonly brought on by a viral upper respiratory infection, or in some cases allergies. Croup is accompanied by stridor, a wheezing sound as the child breathes in. Dr. Grenier says to watch carefully for stridor, which means your child is experiencing respiratory distress.

Page 1 of 24. The amplified, chesty cough
Possible cause:
Seasonal virus
Coughs due to virus can get very loud and worrisome, but they don't always signal a major infection. Dr. Grenier suggests placing your hands on your child's chest as they cough. If it feels like a cat purring, not to worry - a cough is often amplified by the voice box in the chest. If your child is still eating, has energy and can sleep at night, they'll likely kick the cough in 7 to 10 days.

5. The cough that lasts weeks, with whistling or wheezing while exhaling
Possible cause:
Seasonal virus in an asthmatic child
Dr. Grenier says when asthmatic kids pick up a seasonal virus, it can last for weeks. The same secretions experienced by non-asthmatic kids irritates the walls of the bronchi, and the muscles go into spasms. The bronchial tubes tighten, secretions worsen, and these kids get very tired, very fast. Parents or caregivers will hear wheezing or whistling as the child breathes out.

6. Cough with vomiting
Possible cause
: Seasonal virus
If your child or baby has a cough, and throws up after coughing, it doesn't necessarily mean they have a more serious infection. "Their system is not a closed door - it's an open bucket!" explains Dr. Grenier. If a child or infant coughs hard enough, it will trigger the gag reflex and up will come their stomach contents. Again, observe your child. If he or she is still eating, drinking and can sleep, they'll get rid of their cough in 7 to 10 days, and the vomiting will also stop. Note: if your child coughs violently for over 2 weeks with vomiting, can't stop coughing and can't breathe, they may have pertussis - the whooping cough.

7. Coughing so much can't breastfeed
Possible cause:
Pertussis, commonly known as the whooping cough
Nourishment is vital for infant development, and also to fight off any infection they may have. As stated above, pertussis in infants can present as bursts of coughs before turning red or blue. These babies are uncomfortable, will not feed well, and will weaken quickly.

Caution: No matter what a cough sounds or appears like, if coughing is preventing your baby from feeding, even from feeding well, your baby needs to be examined.

Practical tips for parents

Dr. Grenier offers these tips for parents when their kids are coughing:

• What is your first impression of your infant or child when you enter a room? Go with your gut feeling - a parent knows when something is 'off'.

• Is there a fever of 39C to 40C? Is your child miserable?

• Finally, if the cough is dragging, past 7 to 10 days, then there is something else going on. Go see your doctor when the cough is lingering, there is noise when they breathe in or out, or they are coughing so much they're not eating.

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How to identify types of coughs in kids

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