What to look out for
Most coughs are caused by viral infections such as the common cold, flu or bronchitis (inflammation of the large air passages in the lungs). Your child may also have other symptoms such as a runny nose, fever, sore throat, earache or general aches and pains.
Coughing is actually part of your child’s natural immune defence system. It is better to cough up phlegm than to have it stay in the lungs where it can cause serious infections such as pneumonia.
Most coughs will clear up by themselves. As long as your child is drinking plenty of liquids, eating and in reasonably good form, there is no need to worry. Coughs caused by viruses can last up to 3 weeks. Antibiotics will not clear the cough any faster.
If your child’s cough lasts more than three weeks or if they are getting a cough every few weeks, they may have some other lung condition and they should be checked out by your doctor.
Here are some examples of other conditions that can cause a cough. Your doctor can prescribe medicines to treat these conditions.
Asthma: One in five children with asthma get a cough instead of a wheeze. If your child coughs a lot at night, coughs when they exercise, has hay fever or eczema, or there is a family history of these conditions, ask your doctor to check them out.
Recurrent croup: This is a barking cough and causes hoarseness due to swelling of the vocal chords. It is a type of asthma.
Bronchiolitis: This is the name often used to describe a cough and wheeze in a child under two years of age. The child is usually in good form but sounds terrible.
Viral induced wheeze: Some children get a cough and wheeze for up to two weeks when they get a viral infection such as a cold. This does not mean they have asthma. The wheeze may irritate the child but it is not serious. Your child will usually grow out of this tendency. Your doctor may recommend using an inhaler to relieve the wheeze.
Hay fever (also known as allergic rhinitis): In summer, pollens and grasses may irritate the lining of the nose, sinuses and throat causing sneezing, runny nose, itchy nose, itchy eyes and a tickly cough. If these symptoms happen in winter, they are usually caused by a cold.
Bacterial infections: Some bacterial infections such as pneumonia, tuberculosis (TB) or mycoplasma can also cause a cough. These are serious conditions. This is why any cough lasting more than three weeks needs to be checked out by your doctor.
Choking: Rarely, a child might inhale a foreign body such as a fishbone or a piece of a toy. This can cause a sudden bout of coughing as the child tries to cough up the foreign body. Get immediate help if the foreign body cannot be dislodged.
What can you do
If your child has a cough but is in reasonably good form and is drinking well, then there is often no need to do anything. Your child’s immune system will fight the bug that is causing the cough. Talk to your pharmacist. Paracetamol or ibuprofen will relieve pain or fever. If your child is over 6 years of age, they can also take over-the-counter cough remedies. Saline nose sprays can help to clear the nasal passages.
If you think your child’s symptoms are due to one of the other causes of cough listed above, your child should visit the doctor for a check-up as there may be some prescription medicines which will help.
Coughing spreads the germs that caused your child’s cough in the first place so it is important not to pass the germs on to others. Get your child to cough into a tissue, bin the tissue immediately and wash their and your hands.
If your child has a cough for more than three weeks or is getting repeated coughs, they should be checked by your doctor.
When to seek help
If your child has a cough for more than three weeks or is getting recurrent coughs then they should be checked by your doctor.