Coughing is the body's way of removing foreign material or mucus from
the lungs and upper airway passages or of reacting to an
irritated airway. Coughs have distinctive traits you can learn to recognize. A
cough is only a symptom, not a disease, and often the importance of a cough can
be determined only when other symptoms are evaluated.
A productive cough produces phlegm
or mucus (sputum). The mucus may have drained down the back of the throat from
the nose or sinuses or may have come up
from the lungs. A productive cough generally should not be suppressed; it
clears mucus from the lungs. There are many causes of a productive cough, such
Viral illnesses. It is normal to have a productive cough when you
have a common cold. Coughing is often triggered by mucus that drains down the
back of the throat.
Nasal discharge (postnasal drip) draining down the back of the throat. This can cause a productive cough or make your child feel the
need to clear his or her throat frequently. Experts disagree about whether a
postnasal drip or the viral illness that caused it is responsible for the
A nonproductive cough is dry
and does not produce sputum. A dry, hacking cough may develop toward the end of
a cold or after exposure to an irritant, such as dust or smoke. There are many
causes of a nonproductive cough, such as:
Viral illnesses. After a common cold, a dry cough may last
several weeks longer than other symptoms and often gets worse at night.
Bronchospasm. A nonproductive cough, particularly at night, may
mean spasms in the bronchial tubes (bronchospasm) caused by
Asthma. A chronic dry cough may be a sign of mild
asthma. Other symptoms may include wheezing, shortness of breath, or a feeling
of tightness in the chest. For more information, see the topic
Asthma in Children.
Exposure to secondhand smoke from parents or caregivers who
Emotional or psychological problems. A dry, nonproductive
"psychogenic cough" is seen more frequently in children than in adults.
Many coughs are caused by a viral illness. Antibiotics
are not used to treat viral illnesses and do not change the course of viral
infections. Unnecessary use of an antibiotic exposes your child to the risks of
allergic reaction and antibiotic side effects, such as
nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, rashes, and yeast infections. Antibiotics also may
kill beneficial bacteria and encourage the development of dangerous
evaluation of your child's health may help you identify other symptoms.
Remember, a cough is only a symptom, not a disease, and often the importance of
a cough can only be determined when other symptoms are evaluated. Coughs occur
bacterial and viral respiratory infections. If your
child has other symptoms, such as a sore throat, sinus pressure, or ear pain,
see the Related Topics section.
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Coughing is the body's way of removing
foreign substances and
mucus from the
lungs and upper airway passages. Productive coughs are often useful, and you
should not try to eliminate them. Sometimes, though, coughs are severe enough
to impair breathing or prevent rest. Home treatment can help your child feel
more comfortable when he or she has a cough.
dehydration. Fluids may help soothe an irritated
throat. Honey or lemon juice in hot water or tea may help a dry, hacking cough.
Do not give honey to children younger than 1 year of age. It may contain bacteria that are harmful to babies.
Cough and cold medicines may not be safe for young children. Before you give them to a child, check the label. If you do give these medicines to a child, always follow the directions about how much to give based on the child’s age and weight. These medicines may help with your child’s symptoms, but they don’t help your child get better faster. For more information, see Quick Tips: Giving Over-the-Counter Medicines to Children.
If your child's doctor
tells you to give a medicine, be sure to follow what he or she tells you to do.
How much medicine to take and how often to take it may be very different for
children than for adults.
Do not give your child leftover
antibiotics, or antibiotics or medicines that were prescribed for someone
If your child has a barking cough during the night, you can
help him or her breathe better by following the home treatment for a
Hold your child in a calming manner.
Keep your child quiet, if possible. Crying can make breathing more
difficult. Try rocking or distracting your child with a book or game.
humidifier to add moisture to the air. Do not use a
hot vaporizer. Use only water in the humidifier. Hold your child in your lap,
and let the cool vapor blow directly into your child's face.
If there is no improvement after several minutes, take the child
into the bathroom and turn on the shower to create steam. Close the door and
stay in the room while he or she breathes in the moist air for several
minutes. Make sure your child is not burned by the hot water or steam. Do not
leave your child alone in the bathroom.
If there is still no improvement, bundle your child up and go
outside in the cool night air.
Talk to your child's doctor before switching back and
forth between doses of acetaminophen and ibuprofen. When you switch between two
medicines, there is a chance your child will get too much medicine.
Be sure to follow these
safety tips when you use a nonprescription medicine:
Carefully read and follow all directions on the medicine
bottle and box.
Do not use more than the recommended dose.
Do not give your child a medicine if he or she has had an
allergic reaction to it in the past.
If your child goes to a day care center, ask the staff to wash
their hands often to prevent the spread of infection.
Make sure that your child gets all of his or her vaccinations,
especially for diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (DTaP) and for
Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib). For more
information, see the topic
Help your child avoid secondhand smoke. Don't allow smoking in your
home or around your child.
Try to avoid people who have colds or
flu. If one of your children is sick, separate him or her from other children
in the home, if possible. Put the child in a room alone to sleep.
How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.