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 Medical Self-Care: Childhood Cough 
American Institute for Preventive Medicine ©

Children usually get coughs from an infection in the nose and throat.

  • A baby under 6 months old who coughs may have a lung problem.
  • Older babies cough when things get stuck in their windpipes.
  • Children under 5 sometimes breathe in bits of food they can’t chew. (Popcorn and peanuts are both hard to chew.) This can lead to lung problems if the food doesn’t come out.

Here are some other reasons for your child to cough:

  • Croup (See page 30.)
  • Bronchitis (See page 13.)
  • Measles
  • Whooping cough
  • Swollen adenoids (This can lead to infection.)
  • Smoke (second-hand smoke or smoking itself)
  • Asthma (See page 8.)

Coughing can be a sign of many diseases. Your child’s body uses coughing to clear the lungs and airways. Coughing itself is not the problem. What causes the cough is the problem.

How to treat a cough depends on what kind it is, what caused it, and the other symptoms. Treat the cause and make the pain better. Keep your child away from smoking and secondhand smoke. Smoke hurts the lungs and makes it harder for the body to fight infection.

Questions to Ask

Does your child have any of these problems with the cough?

  • Blueness of the mouth, lips, or tongue
  • Won’t drink anything
  • Very sleepy or sluggish
  • Can’t talk or make sounds
  • Drools and has a high fever
  • Coughs up blood
  • Yes: Seek Care

    Is your child a baby or small child? If so, does he or she have both of these problems?

    • The cough sounds like a seal’s bark (high and whistling).
    • Trouble breathing
    Yes: Seek Care
    Did the cough start suddenly and last an hour or more without stopping?Yes:See Doctor

    Does your child have any of these problems with the cough?

    • Wheezing
    • Shortness of breath
    • Quick breathing
    • Fever for more than 4 days
    Yes:See Doctor

    Has your child had their whooping cough shot?

    Yes:See Doctor

    Does he or she have a fever, and cough mostly at night?

    Yes:See Doctor

    Does your child have a rash? Has he or she been near someone with measles?

    Yes:See Doctor
    Does your child cough up something thick and green, yellow, or rust-colored?Yes:See Doctor

    Is your child less than 6 months old?

    Yes:Call Doctor

    Has the cough lasted more than 2 weeks without getting better?

    Yes:Call Doctor

    Self-Care Tips

    • Give your child plenty of liquids. Water helps loosen mucus and soothe a sore throat. Fruit juices are good, too.
    • Use a cool-mist vaporizer, especially in the bedroom. Put a humidifier on the furnace. Keep them very clean. Use distilled water, not tap water. Remember to change the filter on the humidifier.
    • Have your child take a shower. Or have them sit in the bath room with the shower running. The steam can help thin the mucus.
    • Raise your child’s head when resting if they have a cold or upper respiratory infection (an infection above the chest).
    • Put your child’s head lower than their chest if the infection is in the lungs.
    • Ask your child’s doctor or pharmacist what kind of cough medicine to use. Ask the doctor about a decongestant if mucus drips down the back of your child’s throat. (This is called “post-nasal drip.”)
    • Make your own cough medicine. Mix 1 part lemon juice and 2 parts honey. (Don’t give this to children under 1 year old.)
    • Have your child suck on cough drops or hard candies. (Don’t give these to a child under 5 years old.)
    • Don’t give children under 5 small things or foods like peanuts and popcorn. A small child can get something caught in their throat or windpipe. Keep things like paper clips and small toy parts away from small children.
    • Don’t smoke. Keep your child away from second-hand smoke. Tell your child they shouldn’t smoke.
    • Keep your child away from chemical gases that can hurt their lungs.
    • When your child is better, try to get them to exercise on a regular basis. Your child’s breathing muscles will get stronger. Your child will fight infection better, too.
    • Keep your child’s shots up-to-date. (See the “Immunization Schedule and Record” on page 81.)
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