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Baby Cough: Causes, Treatments, Tips

Marion Sereti

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September 26, 2023
CoughPro is not a medical product. It is a wellness app intended only for users to obtain a better understanding of their cough. It is not intended to diagnose, monitor, or treat any illness.

We at Hyfe, Inc., are a company devoted to working on tools to better understand the importance of cough. It is Hyfe’s intention in the future to seek regulatory approval for medical products that analyze cough in order that they may be used to diagnose, monitor, and facilitate better treatment of respiratory illnesses.

A baby at the doctors

Coughs are common in babies, but as a parent you are is naturally concerned when your baby coughs. Therefore, knowing what to do for baby’s cough is essential. While most are not severe, understanding the causes, symptoms, and treatments of baby’s cough can ease your concerns and help you relieve your little one. 

This blog post looks at the causes of babies’ coughs, highlights symptoms to watch for, and presents treatment options. Additionally, we will provide valuable tips on preventing your baby from catching a cough in the first place.

Causes of Baby Coughs

Several factors can trigger a cough in babies. Here are some of the most common causes:

Colds

Common colds are the leading cause of coughs in babies, affecting their nose and throat1. The main symptoms of a cold are difficulty breathing (likely caused by too much mucus – nasal congestion) and a runny nose.

Babies are particularly susceptible to catching the common cold due to multiple reasons. One reason is their frequent proximity to other children, who are typically exposed to a wide variety of environments and germs and pass illnesses back-and-forth between each other. Another reason is that their immune systems have yet to develop resistance to any common infections. In the first year of life, most babies experience around six to eight colds, possibly even higher if they attend childcare centers2.

Treating the common cold in infants involves alleviating their symptoms by ensuring proper hydration, maintaining humid air, and facilitating unobstructed nasal passages by removing mucus. 

Typically caused by a viral infection, colds resolve independently within a week or two. However, very young infants must be promptly examined by a doctor upon the initial signs of a common cold to rule out the presence of more severe illnesses like croup or pneumonia.

Foreign Object Aspiration

It is not uncommon for children to accidentally inhale or swallow foreign objects, leading to foreign body aspiration3. When this happens, the child may initially experience choking or difficulty breathing, followed by respiratory symptoms.

Common symptoms of foreign body aspiration in children include:

  • Cough
  • Abnormal breath sounds
  • Wheezing
  • Stridor (high-pitched noise when breathing)

These symptoms can be concerning and may require immediate medical attention. If a child is suspected of aspirating a foreign object, it is crucial to seek medical help immediately. The doctor will perform an examination, including imaging tests such as X-rays or bronchoscopy, to locate and the foreign body, then remove it from the airway if necessary.

Allergies

Allergies in children happen when their bodies react to certain things in the environment, like pollen or dust4. Allergies can contribute to various symptoms, including coughing.

Some children are more likely to have allergies because of their genes. This means a baby’s cough can from birth be from allergies, such as to dust. But whether or not they develop allergies also depends on what allergens they're exposed to (things that cause allergies), irritants, and any infections.

Allergy foods including eggs, fish, etc

For a child at high risk of developing allergies, controlling what they eat and their surroundings from an early age. This can help reduce the chances of them getting allergies. Even once they are no longer exposed to the allergens, their respiratory systems will likely still be negatively affected for some time5. It's essential to treat them with medicines that reduce inflammation (swelling).

Asthma

Asthma is a chronic lung condition leading to a persistent cough, wheezing, and difficulty breathing6. The classic asthma symptoms in babies are coughing, wheezing (a whistling sound when breathing), and having difficulty breathing or being short of breath. These symptoms don't always happen but rather come and go in episodes.

Different things can make these symptoms start or get worse. Some common triggers are getting cold or other infections in the upper respiratory tract (like the nose and throat), exercising or being active, being around things they are allergic to (like dust or pollen), and breathing in things that irritate the airways, such as tobacco smoke. Sometimes, these symptoms can be worse at night.

If your baby is diagnosed with asthma and experiences these symptoms, seeking medical attention for appropriate treatment is essential.

Whooping Cough

The characteristic sound of a baby with whooping cough is a loud, rapid whoop during coughing episodes7. Cold symptoms and fever are usually absent, so signs of whooping cough may include:

  • Tongue protrusion
  • Bulging eyes
  • Frequent, alarming coughing spasms
  • Facial discoloration
  • Vomiting after coughing

To protect your child, ensure they receive the complete vaccination regimen. As immunity is not fully established until multiple doses are administered, you and your infant's caregivers must receive the Tdap vaccination (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis)8.

If you suspect your baby has contracted whooping cough, don't hesitate to call 911 for prompt medical attention. Early intervention is crucial in managing whooping cough.

Croup

Croup is a respiratory condition commonly seen in infants and young children that causes a distinctive cough9. It is usually caused by a viral infection that affects the upper airways, particularly the voice box (larynx) and windpipe (trachea).

The cough associated with croup is often described as a “barking” cough because it resembles the sound of a seal or a dog. A harsh, raspy quality and a high-pitched sound characterize it. The cough can accompany other symptoms such as a hoarse voice, difficulty breathing, and a noisy or complex breathing pattern.

Croup cough tends to be more prominent at night and may worsen when the baby is agitated or crying. The coughing episodes can be sudden and may last for several minutes, leading to periods of restlessness and discomfort for the child. Sometimes, the cough may be accompanied by a low-grade fever, runny nose, and mild sore throat.

If recommended by a healthcare professional, over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen (paracetamol) or ibuprofen can be given to reduce fever and discomfort. Sometimes, a single dose of oral corticosteroids (such as dexamethasone or prednisolone) may be prescribed to help reduce airway inflammation and improve breathing. This is usually reserved for moderate to severe cases.

Medical attention may be necessary in severe cases or if your child has significant difficulty breathing. This could include visiting the emergency room or calling for emergency medical assistance.

Bronchiolitis

Bronchiolitis happens when the lining of the small airways in the lungs gets inflamed10. This inflammation causes the cells in that lining to produce more mucus than normal because they become swollen and damaged. These inflamed cells block the airway and make it harder for air to pass through, which can cause a wheezing sound when breathing.

According to the Mayo Clinic, bronchiolitis usually starts with symptoms similar to a regular cold, like a runny nose and cough11. However, it can get worse over time. One of the main signs of bronchiolitis is a high-pitched whistling sound (wheezing) when the baby breathes out, alongside coughing. Sometimes, children with bronchiolitis have difficulty breathing. These symptoms last approximately one to two weeks, but sometimes they can last even longer.

Luckily, most babies with bronchiolitis can get better by being takien care of at home. They will need to rest and drink plenty of fluids; a humidifier may make breathing easier. However,, they might need to go to the hospital for extra care and monitoring until they feel better. If concerned, seek medical help by reporting baby’s cough to the doctor alongside their other symptoms.

Pneumonia

Pneumonia is a severe illness affecting many children worldwide, especially those under five years old12. In simpler terms, pneumonia is a big concern because it makes many children very sick.

In infants and young children, the symptoms can be slightly different from adults. They may include:

  • Cough, sometimes with mucus
  • Wheezing or grunting sounds while breathing
  • Poor appetite or feeding difficulties
  • High fever
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Rapid or difficult breathing
  • Fatigue and irritability

If your baby develops symptoms of pneumonia, it is crucial to seek medical attention. A doctor will evaluate the symptoms, perform a physical examination, and may order additional tests, such as a chest X-ray or blood tests to confirm the diagnosis.

The treatment of pneumonia largely depends on the cause and severity of the infection. Bacterial pneumonia is often treated with antibiotics, medicines that can kill bacteria. Viral pneumonia does not respond to antibiotics and is typically treated symptomatically to make the patient feel better; it typically resolves independently with rest, fluids, and supportive care.

However, in severe cases of pneumonia, hospitalization may be necessary for young children, specifically those with underlying health conditions. In the hospital, they can receive more intensive treatment, including intravenous antibiotics and respiratory support if needed.

COVID-19 Cough in Babies

Babies can catch COVID-19 just the same as adults. In fact, children in general may catch COVID-19 more often than adults13.

Luckily, most of the time, when kids have COVID-19, they have less severe symptoms compared to adults. Sometimes, they don't show any signs of being sick at all. CDC states that the usual symptoms of COVID-19 in children are fever and cough. However, they can also have a sore throat, runny nose, headache, tiredness, difficulty breathing, or problems with their stomach, like feeling sick, throwing up, or having diarrhea.14.

It can be challenging to identify COVID-19 in children and babies based solely on their symptoms because the signs and symptoms of a COVID-19 cough can be similar to those of other conditions. This is why, when someone develops a cough , it is necessary to test for COVID-19 to rule it out or confirm it.

Mainly, treatment of COVID-19 in children is managed in an outpatient setting –; it allows children to receive the necessary care while lowering the risk of transmission to others outside the family, the disruption to their life, their chances of catching further diseases like MRSA, and reducing the resources necessary to care for them so the resources are available for others. 

In some cases, children with COVID-19 can become very sick and need to stay in the hospital. When children are admitted to the hospital or receive medical care for COVID-19, the doctors may perform additional tests alongside testing for COVID-19. These further tests can include laboratory tests, to check different aspects of their blood, and radiographic studies, which involve taking images of their body, such as X-rays. Children with severe COVID-19 who require hospitalization typically have abnormal vital signs, like heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, and body temperature15.

When a child has severe to critical COVID-19, the doctors will provide different treatments to help them get better. However, it's important to note that only some medications used for treating severe to critical COVID-19 in adults have been authorized or approved for use in children. Treating severe to critical COVID-19 in children is based on carefully evaluating and considering the best options for their conditions. Some medicines certified for adults may also be authorized for use in children, depending on the specific circumstances and available evidence. Treatments that both adults and infants can receive include assistance with breathing problems, treating lung complications, or relieving other medical conditions to allow the body to put its resources towards fighting the COVID-19 virus.

What To Do For Baby’s Cough at Home

While a baby's immune system fights off a cough, there are steps you can take to alleviate their discomfort:

  • Hydration – Ensure your baby receives plenty of fluids. Fluids help loosen mucus, making it easier for your baby to cough. This is a safe baby's cough remedy that you can use any time your baby coughs.
  • Humidifier or steam vaporizer – Use a cool-mist humidifier or steam vaporizer, or take your child into a steamy bathroom to help alleviate cough and congestion.
  • Warm Baths – A warm bath can generate steam, which aids in loosening mucus and facilitating productive coughing.
  • Keep your child calm and comfortable to minimize agitation and crying, which can worsen symptoms.
  • Keep the environment free from irritants such as smoke or strong odors, which can trigger coughing.

Regarding over-the-counter baby cough medicineconsult your doctor before administering any over-the-counter cough medicine to your baby. Dosages will be different for baby and it is easy to overdose. The FDA advice against giving cough and cold medications to children under two years of age16.

Additionally, while honey is a traditional and effective treatment for cough in adults, it is not suitable for infants under 12 months old. When baby coughs, they should not be given honey as honey can contain botulism-causing spores17. These are harmless to most adults, but young infants cannot defend against the infection, especially if they also have something else causing a cough.

When To Go To The Doctor

Although most baby coughs are harmless, you will always worry about your baby’s cough. There are some situations when specific symptoms may warrant medical attention. Keep an eye out for the following indicators:

  • A persistent cough lasting longer than two weeks
  • A cough accompanied by additional symptoms such as
    • Fever
    • Breathing difficulties
    • Audible sounds, like wheezing during breathing
  • Breathing significantly faster than usual
  • Lips or faces display a bluish hue (cyanosis)
  • A severe cough that disrupts your baby's sleep or feeding patterns
  • You suspect your child is in a critical condition requiring immediate medical attention

Consult a healthcare professional if your baby experiences any of these symptoms.

Preventing Baby Coughs

Prevention is vital when it comes to protecting your baby from coughs. Implement these measures to safeguard your little one's health:

  • Frequent handwashing – Regular handwashing is crucial in preventing the spread of germs. Clean your hands thoroughly and encourage others to do the same. Don’t be one of the 32% who prepare food without washing their hands after changing a diaper18!
  • Minimize contact with sick individuals – While it is important for the baby to see grandma, avoid close contact with people who are sick. Your baby’s immune system is not fully developed yet. If necessary for a sick person to be around your baby, ask them to wear a mask to stop the spread of respiratory diseases19..
  • Vaccination – Stay up-to-date with your baby's vaccinations. Vaccines are now available for both the flu and RSV (respiratory syntactical virus)20.
  • Maintain a clean environment – Keep your baby's surroundings clean by regularly vacuuming and dusting. This helps minimize the presence of allergens and irritants.

Conclusion

In conclusion, coughing in babies can be caused by various factors, from respiratory illnesses like croup to allergies or irritants in the environment. 

Parents should monitor their baby's cough and seek medical attention if there are other symptoms like difficulty breathing or fever. With proper care and treatment, most babies with a cough will recover quickly and without complications.

References
  1. Mayo Clinic Staff (2021). Common cold in babies - Symptoms & causes - Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/common-cold-in-babies/symptoms-causes/syc-20351651 19th September 2023[]
  2. NICE (2022). Prevalence ¦ Background information ¦ Common cold ¦ CKS ¦ NICE. Retrieved 24th September 2023 from https://cks.nice.org.uk/topics/common-cold/background-information/prevalence/[]
  3. Cramer, N., Jabbour, N., Tavarez, M. M., Taylor, R. S. (2023). Foreign Body Aspiration. StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved 24th September 2023 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK531480/[]
  4. Chad, Z. (2001). Allergies in children. Paediatrics & Child Health, 6(8), 555-566. https://doi.org/10.1093/pch/6.8.555[]
  5. Kajekar, R., Pieczarka, E. M., Smiley-Jewell, S. M., Schelegle, E. S., Fanucchi, M. V., & Plopper, C. G. (2007). Early postnatal exposure to allergen and ozone leads to hyperinnervation of the pulmonary epithelium. Respiratory Physiology & Neurobiology, 155(1), 55-63. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.resp.2006.03.002[]
  6. Lizzo, J. M., Cortes, S. (2023). Pediatric Asthma. StatPearls [Internet]. NCBI Bookshelf. Retrieved 24th September 2023 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK551631/[]
  7. Decker, M. D., & Edwards, K. M. (2021). Pertussis (Whooping Cough). The Journal of Infectious Diseases, 224(Suppl 4), S310. https://doi.org/10.1093/infdis/jiaa469[]
  8. CDC (2021). Vaccine Information Statement ¦ Tdap ¦ Tetanus-Diptheria-Pertussis ¦ VIS ¦ CDC. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved 24th September 2023 from https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/hcp/vis/vis-statements/tdap.html[]
  9. Sizar, O., Carr, B. (2023). Croup. StatPearls [Internet]. NCBI Bookshelf. Retrieved 24th September 2023 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/book/s/NBK431070/[]
  10. Erickson, E. N., Bhakta, R. T., Mendez, M. D. (2023). Pediatric Bronchiolitis. StatPearls [Internet]. NCBI Bookshelf. Retreived 24th September 2023 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK519506/[]
  11. Mayo Clinic Staff. (2023, February 5th). Bronchiolitis - Symptoms and causes - Mayo Clinic. Retrieved 24th September 2023 from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/bronchiolitis/symptoms-causes/syc-20351565[]
  12. Ebeledike, C., Ahmad, T. (2023). Pediatric Pneumonia. StatPearls [Internet]. NCBI Bookshelf. Retrieved 24th September 2023 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK536940/[]
  13. CDC. (2023). Information for Pediatric Healthcare Providers. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved 24th September 2023 from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/pediatric-hcp.html[]
  14. CDC. (2023). Information for Pediatric Healthcare Providers. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved 24th September 2023 from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/pediatric-hcp.html[]
  15. CDC. (2023). Information for Pediatric Healthcare Providers. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved 24th September 2023 from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/pediatric-hcp.html[]
  16. U.S. Food & Drug Administration (2021). Should You Give Kids Medicine for Coughs and Colds? United States Government.https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/should-you-give-kids-medicine-coughs-and-colds[]
  17. FDA. (2022). Once Baby Arrives - Food Safety for Moms to Be. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Retrieved 24th September 2023 from https://www.fda.gov/food/people-risk-foodborne-illness/once-baby-arrives-food-safety-moms-be[]
  18. FDA. (2022). Once Baby Arrives - Food Safety for Moms to Be. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Retrieved 24th September 2023 from https://www.fda.gov/food/people-risk-foodborne-illness/once-baby-arrives-food-safety-moms-be[]
  19. Cheng, Y., Ma, N., Witt, C., Rapp, S., Wild, P. S., Andreae, M. O., Pöschl, U., & Su, H. (2021). Face masks effectively limit the probability of SARS-CoV-2 transmission. Science. https://doi.org/abg6296[]
  20. CDC. (2023). RSV Vaccine Information Statement. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved 24th September 2023 from https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/hcp/vis/vis-statements/rsv.html[]

Your Cough Matters

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    This app is easy to use, aesthetically pleasing and has provided me with useful information about my cough and disease patterns that have improved my overall health!

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    App is great at tracking cough when little ones are sick. I treat it as a early warning indicator before the cold gets back. Customer service is awesome, they actually respond to all my questions.
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    I had an issue logging into the new app but I contacted the support team and they were awesome in helping me figure out the issue. It turned out to be a technical issue which they resolved very quickly and I was kept in the loop on the status from start to finish. This app is really helpful when talking to my doctor too..
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    By KayakTina - Apr 7, 2023 - App Store
    "The app accurately is recording my coughs with excellent ways to review the results. I can add notes to help me identify patterns or have accurate information for my physicians. I’ve hoped for an app like this for years to help me accurately track the amount of coughing I’m doing"
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    by Beardonna — Mar 8, 2023 - App Store

    Just installed the app. Very accurate measuring coughs so far! Cannot wait to see how much coughing I do while sleeping. I'll have a better picture to discuss with my physician at my next visit.

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