Which Cough Is the Wrong Cough?

Most coughs are a sign your child’s body is hard at work protecting itself, but some should be red flags for parents.

While it’s certainly not pleasant to see your child coughing, remember that a cough is a natural reflex to defend the throat and chest airways from illness and infection. Most childhood coughs such as daytime, nighttime, and even persistent coughs are the result of allergies, asthma, and colds.

Sounds Like…

Differentiating between healthy coughs and those that require medical attention can often be achieved by listening to the cough or determining whether it is accompanied by a fever.

The most common childhood coughs to be concerned about are:

The Bark—This cough mimics a bark because the airway’s upper section is swollen, usually covering the voice box and windpipe. A barky cough is a sign of croup, a contagious virus that lasts five to six days and occurs primarily in children ages 5 and younger.

The Fever—A cough coupled with a fever of 102 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, as well as rapid breathing, may signal pneumonia. An infection of the lungs, pneumonia usually follows an upper respiratory tract infection and can last one to two weeks.

The Wheeze—A tight wheezing when your child exhales and coughs can indicate the viral infection bronchiolitis. Caused by swelling and an increase of mucus in the lungs’ smallest air passages, it affects children ages 2 and younger.

The Whoop—Whooping cough is the better-known name for pertussis, a bacterial infection of the airways. Pertussis is highly contagious and can last three to six weeks.

All four types of coughs, particularly those associated with pneumonia and whooping cough, merit a doctor’s appointment. For immediate answers, call Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital at St.Vincent Health’s 24-hour Nurse Advice Line, 317.338.KIDS (5437).


For pneumonia and whooping cough, doctors typically prescribe oral antibiotics, though both infections can lead to hospitalization in severe cases. For croup and brochiolitis, home treatment is more common because antibiotics are typically less effective. The following home remedies target the mucus in your child’s airways by loosening it with moisture:

  • Breathing moist air through a damp, warm washcloth or via steam in the shower
  • Drinking more fluids, such as lemonade and juice
  • Installing a cool-mist humidifier in your child’s room

Reviewed by Ramindrajit Sufi, M.D., pediatric pulmonologist, Pediatric Pulmonology Center, Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital at St.Vincent.

The above article in no way seeks to serve as a substitute for professional medical advice or care. Please consult your child’s primary care provider regarding any and all information contained therein.

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