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Toddler Coughing at Night

Marion Sereti

|

May 8, 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 toddler that's coughing at night taking medication

The pleasures of being a parent are balanced with dealing with your child's health issues  – one of parenting's most difficult responsibilities. A common problem that parents encounter is their toddler coughing at night. 

Even though anyone can cough at night, in a toddler's case it can be extremely upsetting, worrisome, and draining. This article will shed some light on this topic and hopefully put your mind at ease.

Possible Causes of a Toddler Coughing at Night

When a toddler coughs, the type of sound they produce and the additional symptoms present can aid in determining the underlying cause. It is common for parents to notice that their toddler's cough worsens during the night. This is due to mucus drainage from the toddler's nose and sinus cavity down their throat while lying down to sleep.

The causes of coughing in toddlers vary and include the common cold, asthma, acid reflux, or sinus infections. Toddlers are especially susceptible to colds and flu, due to their immature immune systems. If this is the case, the cough will often pass in days, although it may take weeks.

Additionally, though most toddler coughs resolve within a few weeks, studies indicate that 5-10%1 of children experience a persistent cough that lasts for an extended period. This cough could either be dry or wet.

A dry cough, sometimes called a hacking cough, following a cold is likely due to residual mucus that will eventually clear up. However, when a child's dry cough is mainly present at night, it could indicate a more serious condition. Irritation caused by mucus in inflamed and narrowed lung passages can cause a cough, especially when lying down, after exercise, in cold air, or if the toddler has a cold or allergies.

Wet coughs are characterized by the expulsion of phlegm or mucus from the respiratory tract, usually caused by viral or bacterial infections. 

A few particular conditions that would cause a toddler to cough2 at night include:

  • Croup – The age group with the highest incidence of croup is children between six months and three years of age. The hallmark indication of this condition is a distinctive cough resembling the sound of a seal (barky), which usually intensifies during nighttime.
  • Whooping cough – This is a highly contagious respiratory illness, caused by Bordetella pertussis bacteria, damages the cilia and enlarges airways, resulting in paroxysmal coughing (violent and uncontrolled coughing fits), which can cause vomiting and exhaustion. The illness is more severe in infants, young children, and individuals without pertussis immunization, while teenagers and adults usually experience milder symptoms.
  • Environmental irritants and allergies – If your toddler is exposed to air pollution or allergens such as pet dander, dust, and pollen, they may experience coughing as a symptom. 
  • Asthma3  If a child experiences coughing and wheezing or has a history of wheezing or shortness of breath during the nighttime, it could be a sign of childhood asthma, a condition that affects about 6 million children in the United States4
  • Chronic bronchitis5
  • Pneumonia6
  • Covid-197

Treatments and Remedies for a Toddler Coughing at Night

Fortunately, most cases of toddler coughing at night can be treated at home:

  • Keep your toddler hydrated – Offer them plenty of water and clear fluids to help thin out the mucus in their lungs. 
  • Use a cool mist humidifier in their room – This will add moisture to the air and can help soothe their throat and ease their cough. 
  • Adhere to asthma management instructions – If your child has asthma, confirm that the doctor has provided you with information on how to manage their asthma and during a flare-up, keep a close eye on your child's cough development and administer asthma medications as directed by the doctor.
  • Administer OTC medications to relieve symptoms – If your toddler has a fever or discomfort, give them over-the-counter medication like acetaminophen or ibuprofen to ease their symptoms. Cough drops are safe for older kids but they present a choking risk for younger kids. It's best to let your child's doctor choose their medication. Some OTC medications are not suitable for use by children under four years old8.
  • Try warm milk/water with honey – Research has indicated that honey may have beneficial properties that can aid in alleviating coughing during the night9. However, caution must be taken when administering honey to young children, as those under 12 months of age are at risk of botulism poisoning.

This information does not replace a doctor's opinion. Please consult with your child's healthcare provider before administering any medications.

How Serious Is a Toddler Coughing at Night?

The severity of a toddler coughing at night depends on the underlying cause. In many cases, a nighttime cough in a toddler may be caused by a viral infection (for example, the common cold) and will resolve on its own within a week or two.

While most cases of toddler coughing at night are not serious, there are some situations where you should seek medical attention. To find and treat the underlying cause, it's crucial to seek expert medical attention if symptoms worsen or become more severe.

With that in mind, you must immediately get in touch with a doctor if your child demonstrates any of the following symptoms:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Difficulty swallowing (may manifest as drooling)
  • High fever
  • Coughing up blood
  • Persistent, wet cough
  • Makes a "whooping" sound when breathing after coughing

These symptoms could demonstrate a more serious underlying condition requiring urgent medical attention to avoid more complications and ensure your child feels better quickly.

FAQs

Is it ok for a toddler to sleep with a cough?

While a toddler can usually sleep through a cough, it can be uncomfortable and disturb their sleep, negatively affecting their general health and well-being.

It's important to seek medical help immediately if your toddler's cough keeps them up at night or is followed by other symptoms like fever, wheezing, or trouble breathing.

A chronic cough can occasionally indicate a more serious underlying disease that needs medical attention. A medical expert can examine your child and recommend the best course to manage their cough and enhance their sleep quality.

What lifestyle changes should one make to help minimize a toddler's nighttime coughing?

Below are a few recommendations for making lifestyle adjustments that can assist in reducing your toddler's nighttime coughing:

- Ensure your toddler consumes plenty of fluids throughout the day – Being hydrated can clear mucus and ease coughing
- Elevate the head of the bed – Your child can breathe more easily at night, and postnasal drip will be less of an issue
- Use a humidifier – A cool-mist humidifier can help maintain moisture in the air, easing coughing and reducing lung irritation
- Reduce exposure to smoke and other irritants – They can worsen nocturnal coughing and overall lung health; quitting smoking brings health benefits to both you and your family and prevents exposure to secondhand smoke
- Encourage your toddler to wash their hands frequently

Does the type of cough matter when treating toddlers' nighttime coughing?

Yes, the type of cough does count when treating toddlers' nighttime coughing. Knowing the type of cough can help choose the best course of action because different kinds of coughs can signify various underlying causes.

For instance, a dry cough that produces no mucus may be brought on by a viral illness, so drinking lots of fluids and getting plenty of rest would be the best treatment. On the other hand, a wet cough that produces phlegm may indicate a bacterial infection, which a medical expert may treat with antibiotics.

The use of cough suppressants in early childhood should be done cautiously as they can have negative side effects and may not be successful in treating coughs brought on by certain conditions such as asthma.

If you're unsure of how to manage your toddler's nighttime cough, it's best to consult a pediatrician for guidance on the best course of action.

What other symptoms should I watch out for if my toddler coughs at night?

Other symptoms you should watch out for your toddler coughs at night are:
- Difficulty breathing
- Difficulty swallowing (may manifest as drooling)
- High fever
- Coughing up blood
- A persistent, wet cough
- Makes a "whooping" sound when breathing after coughing
- Difficulty sleeping

Conclusion

Dealing with a toddler coughing at night can be challenging, but it's important to remember that it's a common issue many parents face. Fortunately, toddler coughing at night is manageable; therefore, it is important to identify the cause and follow the appropriate treatment plan.

Remember, if the coughing persists or the child is showing other concerning symptoms, or you're ever in doubt or concerned about your toddler's health, don't hesitate to seek medical attention.

References
  1. Kasi, A. S., & Kamerman-Kretzmer, R. J. (2019). Cough. Pediatrics In Review, 40(4), 157–167. https://doi.org/10.1542/pir.2018-0116[]
  2. Sharma S, Hashmi MF, Alhajjaj MS. (2023, February 19). Cough. [StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-. Retrieved 15th April 2023 from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK493221/[]
  3. Jurca, M., Goutaki, M., Latzin, P., Gaillard, E. A., Spycher, B. D., & Kuehni, C. E. (2020). Isolated night cough in children: how does it differ from wheeze?. ERJ open research, 6(4), 00217-2020. https://doi.org/10.1183/23120541.00217-2020[]
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). Asthma in children. CDC. Retrieved 15th April 2023 from https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/childhood-asthma/index.html[]
  5. Taussig, L. M., Smith, S. M., & Blumenfeld, R. (1981). Chronic Bronchitis in Childhood: What Is It? Pediatrics, 67(1), 1–5. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.67.1.1[]
  6. Wardlaw, T., Salama, P., Johansson, E. W., & Mason, E. (2006). Pneumonia: the leading killer of children. The Lancet, 368(9541), 1048–1050. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0140-6736(06)69334-3[]
  7. de Souza, T. H., Nadal, J. A., Nogueira, R. J. N., Pereira, R. M., & Brandão, M. B. (2020). Clinical manifestations of children with COVID-19: A systematic review. Pediatric Pulmonology, 55(8), 1892–1899. https://doi.org/10.1002/ppul.24885[]
  8. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. (2018). Use Caution When Giving Cough and Cold Products to Kids ¦ FDA. Retrieved 18th April 2023 from https://www.fda.gov/drugs/special-features/use-caution-when-giving-cough-and-cold-products-kids[]
  9. Paul, I. M. (2007). Effect of Honey, Dextromethorphan, and No Treatment on Nocturnal Cough and Sleep Quality for Coughing Children and Their Parents. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 161(12), p. 1140. https://doi.org/10.1001/archpedi.161.12.1140[]

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    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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