How to treat a dry cough in children

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There are a variety of conditions that cause a dry cough in a child. A common cold and cough are not usually a reason for a caregiver
to be concerned, but they should seek help if the cough becomes chronic.

It is important that a parent or caregiver takes note of other symptoms that are accompanying the cough. If the child ever sounds like they are struggling to breathe, a caregiver should contact emergency services immediately.

Coughs are a symptom of an underlying condition. Treating the cough depends on the cause.

In some cases, a caregiver can help prevent a dry cough by taking preventative measures. These may include getting the child appropriate vaccinations or preventing their exposure to allergens or irritants.

If a caregiver is not sure what is causing the cough, they should talk to the child’s doctor, as soon as possible, to get a diagnosis.

The common cold

According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, preschool children who go to daycare can develop roughly eight viral respiratory infections in a year. Typically, each infection will last for 10 days.

If the child’s cough occurs toward the end of an upper respiratory infection, such as a cold, and clears within 1–2 weeks, a parent or caregiver typically does not need to do anything specific to treat the cough.

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), coughing during a cold can help the body clear out mucus from the airways. It can also protect the lungs.
However, if the cough is dry, or nonproductive, a caregiver should ensure that the child drinks plenty of fluids and warm drinks to help soothe their throat.

Other methods a caregiver can try, include:

  • using a humidifier in the child’s room
  • running a hot shower with the door and windows or vents closed and have the child sit in the room
  • opening a window or freezer to provide cold air for the child to breathe in if croup is causing the cough

A caregiver can also try giving the child honey, but only if the child is 12 months or older.

According to 2018 article, researchers found that honey may reduce the symptoms of a cough more than no treatment. However, the study did not find evidence either for or against using honey to treat a cough.

It is important to note that caregivers should not give honey to infants younger than 12 months old, as infants at this age do not have immunity to bacteria that may be present in honey.

Pertussis

Pertussis, or whooping cough, is a bacterial infection, which can be deadly in unvaccinated or incompletely vaccinated children under the age of 12 months.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in infants over 12 months old, a doctor can treat pertussis with antibiotics and supportive therapies

Asthma can be life threatening. A parent or caregiver should seek immediate medical attention if the child’s symptoms appear to be worsening.

They should also seek emergency medical help if the following occurs:

  • retractions, or fast breathing with the skin sucking in around the chest plate or rib bones when the child inhales
  • blue coloring in the face, fingernails, and lips
  • flaring, which is when the nostrils move rapidly
  • an expanded chest that does not deflate when exhaling
  • the infant does not recognize or respond to a caregiver
  • ribs or stomach move in and out quickly

Children with asthma should get a yearly flu shot in the fall.

To treat asthma in children, a doctor or allergist may prescribe medication for the quick relief of symptoms and long-term relief.

The medication usually comes in the form of an inhaler. A person may also use a nebulizer. A healthcare professional can teach the caregiver and child how to use this device.

Allergies

Allergies can cause a dry cough in children. A caregiver can help a child use:

  • over-the-counter (OTC) antihistamines
  • nasal sprays
  • decongestants

If the allergies are severe, a child may need allergy shots.

A caregiver should seek emergency medical help if a child experiences:

  • hives
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • abdominal pain
  • diarrhea
  • difficulty breathing
  • tightness in the throat
  • fainting
  • rapid heartbeat

Diagnosis

A doctor will examine the child and ask questions about other symptoms and how long they have had the cough. During the exam, the doctor or other healthcare professional will evaluate the child’s breathing, vital signs, lungs, and other areas of the body.

Often the sound of the child’s cough, physical exam, and additional symptoms will be enough to determine the cause of the cough.

In some cases, such as allergic reactions, allergy tests may be required to determine the cause. In some cases, the child may need to see an allergist for treatment.

When to see a doctor

A caregiver should take their child in for a medical evaluation if they have a cough that lasts for longer than 2–3 weeks. Other reasons to seek medical care include the following signs and symptoms:

  • a high fever or any fever in an infant
  • rapid breathing
  • trouble breathing or catching breath
  • coughing up blood
  • signs of dehydration
  • a whooping sound when the child coughs
  • a wheezing sound when the child breathes

A caregiver should also seek emergency care for a child if they are showing signs of a severe asthma attack or severe allergic reaction.

If a caregiver is ever unsure about what is causing the cough or is concerned, they should take the child to see a doctor or other healthcare professional such as physician assistant (PA) or nurse practitioner (NP).

Summary

There are several potential causes of a dry cough, including infections, allergens, pollutants, and asthma.

If a child has a dry cough, a caregiver may be able to monitor and treat the cough at home. If the child has a known underlying condition, treating that condition should help the cough clear.

However, if the caregiver does not know what is causing the cough, the child has a high fever or other symptoms, they should take their child to see their doctor.

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