Your Child’s Cough

Medically Reviewed by Renee A. Alli, MD on March 21, 2024
3 min read

When your child coughs, their body is doing its job.

A cough is a reflex that clears fluid from the throat and chest. It happens when nerve endings in those airways get irritated.

It’s one of the most common symptoms of colds and other viruses, including the flu. But if it’s caused by a virus, antibiotics won’t make it stop. Viral infections have to run their course.

Ask yourself some questions:

Does your child have other symptoms?

A cough that comes with a runny nose and sneezing may point to a cold or allergies.

Those symptoms, body aches, and a fever often come with the flu.

When did the cough start?

Allergies are more likely in the spring and fall.

What does it sound like?
Allergies, viral infections, and the croup can bring on a barking cough.

Whooping cough (pertussis) brings on a noise that sounds like "hoop!" Call your doctor if you hear that sound.

A wheezing sound could mean something is blocking your child’s airway. It could be brought on by pneumonia , asthma , or a virus. Call the doctor.

What if the cough won’t go away?

Visit the doctor. Most last no more than a few weeks, but some people have ones that stick around long after other symptoms are gone. In a child, a cough is considered chronic if it lasts more than 4 weeks. For adults, it’s 8 weeks or more.

Ask your doctor before giving your child any cough medicine. Don’t give over-the-counter cough medicine to children younger than 6. They aren’t meant for young kids. Even medicine labeled for children can have serious side effects, such as high blood pressure and seizures.

No drugs can cure a cough caused by a virus, but treatments may soothe symptoms. Here are a few home remedies to try:

Steam: You can create your own steam room. Close the door to your bathroom and run hot water in the shower for several minutes until the mirrors fog. The steam helps unclog your child’s nose.

Humidity: A cool-mist humidifier in your child’s room adds moisture to the air to break up congestion and help your little one breathe easier.

Fluids: Give them plenty of drinks like tea and soup help to soothe the throat. You can add honey to warm water for children older than 1 year. Water and juices thin mucus, making it easier for your child to cough up phlegm. 

Cough drops: For kids over age 5, lozenges and hard candy can bring some relief to a sore throat caused by coughing.

Cool air: If your child has croup, take them outside for a while. The cool air sometimes can relieve a croupy cough. (Just make sure you dress them properly for the weather.) If this doesn’t help or you think your child is sick, get medical help.

Saline drops: Saline or saltwater drops in the nose can help loosen congestion. Use a suction device to clear the nasal passages.

Eventually, the symptoms should go away on their own. But call the doctor if your child:

  • Is not drinking or eating enough
  • Makes a whooping sound when they breathe
  • Runs a high fever
  • Wheezes when they breathe
  • Has a cough that lasts more than a month
  • Doesn’t look well to you

Seek emergency help if your child: