Children's Cough: Causes and Treatments

Medically Reviewed by Renee A. Alli, MD on June 07, 2020

A child's little body can make a big sound when wracked with cough. To help your child cope with a cough, know the common causes and treatments you can try at home.

Children and Cough: Common Causes and Treatments

A cough is usually a sign your child's body is trying to rid itself of an irritant, from mucus to a foreign object. Common causes of cough include:

  • Infection. Colds, flu, and croup can all lead to a lingering cough for kids. Colds tend to cause a mild to moderate hacking cough; the flu a sometimes severe, dry cough; and croup has a "barking" cough mostly at night with noisy breathing. These viral infections are not treated with antibiotics, but can be managed with other medications.
  • Acid reflux. Symptoms in children may include coughing, frequent vomiting/spitting up, a bad taste in the mouth, and a burning sensation in the chest known as  heartburn. Treatment for reflux depends on a child's age, health, and other issues. Try these three tips: Remove trigger foods from their diet (often chocolate, peppermint, fried, spicy, fatty foods, and caffeine and carbonated drinks). Eat at least two hours before bedtime. And eat smaller meals. See your doctor if you are concerned about your child's acid reflux.
  • Asthma can be tough to diagnose, because symptoms vary from child to child. But a wheezing cough, which may get worse at night, is one of many asthma symptoms. The other may be a cough that appears with increased physical activity or during play. Treatment for asthma depends on what's causing it, and may include avoiding triggers like pollution, smoke, or perfumes. See your doctor if you think your child has asthma symptoms.
  • Allergies/sinusitis can cause a lingering cough, as well as an itchy throat, runny nose, watery eyes, sore throat, or rash. Talk to your child's doctor about allergy tests to find out which allergens cause the problem, and ask for advice on how to avoid that allergen. Allergens can include food, pollen, pet dander, and dust. Your doctor may also recommend allergy medication or allergy shots.
  • Whooping cough, also called pertussis, is characterized by back-to-back coughs, followed by an inhale that has a "whooping" sound. Other symptoms may include runny nose, sneezing, and low fever. Whooping cough is contagious, but easy to prevent with a vaccine. Whooping cough is treated with antibiotics.
  • Other reasons children cough. A child may also cough out of habit after having been sick with a cough; after inhaling a foreign body like food or a small toy; or after exposure to irritants like pollution from cigarettes or fireplace smoke.

A Word About Children and Cough Medicine

Medication can't cure colds or flu, but honey, hard candies or cough drops can help relieve a sore throat caused by coughing. Because of choking hazards, they should only be given to children over age 4.  DO NOT give honey-based cough drops to children age 1 or younger. There are some agave-based cough syrups approved for kids younger than a year old. Moist air can help children cope with croup; try a warm, steamy bathroom, or cool morning air. For lingering coughs in an asthmatic, your child may need to take steroids or other medications prescribed by the doctor.

Don't give cough medicine to children under age 4. Not only are these drugs not approved for very young children, there's no proof that they benefit them, either.

Also important: Never give aspirin to children under age 18. Aspirin in children may cause Reye's syndrome, a rare but serious brain disease.

When to Call a Doctor About Your Child's Cough

Call 911 if your child:

  • Is struggling for breath, can't talk, or grunts with each breath
  • Is choking and unable to stop
  • Has passed out or stopped breathing
  • Has blue-tinged lips or fingernails

Call your doctor right away if your child:

  • Has trouble breathing or talking
  • Persistent vomiting
  • Turns red or purple when coughing
  • Drools or has trouble swallowing
  • Seems very sick or fatigued
  • May have an object caught in their throat
  • Has chest pain when breathing deep
  • Is coughing blood or wheezing
  • Has a weak immune system or is not fully immunized
  • Is younger than age 4 months with a rectal temperature above 100.4° F (Do not give fever medicine to infants.)
  • Has a fever over 104 F, with no improvement in two hours after fever medicine
WebMD Medical Reference



American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology: "Cough in Children: Tips to Remember."

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Cold and Cough Medicines: Information for Parents."

Children's Hospital Colorado: "Your Child's Cough;" "Flu Facts;" "Whooping Cough (Pertussis);" "Asthma Basics;" "Asthma and Allergy Awareness – Information You Can Use."

American College of Chest Physicians: "Overview of Common Causes of Chronic Cough." "Infections: Common Cold."

American Academy of Pediatrics: "Croup Treatment."

Seattle Children's Hospital: "Should You See a Doctor? Cough."

Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health | Stanford University School of Medicine: "Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) / Heartburn" and "Acute Bronchitis."

National Institutes of Health: "Cold and Cough Medicines."

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