Causes and Treatment of Coughs in Children

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on September 20, 2021
4 min read

A cough is usually a sign that your child's body is trying to rid itself of an irritant. 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 or spitting up, a bad taste in the mouth, and a burning feeling in the chest known as  heartburn. Treatment for reflux depends on a child's age, health, and other issues. Try these tips: Remove trigger foods from their diet (often chocolate, peppermint, fried, spicy, fatty foods, and caffeine and carbonated drinks). Eat at least 2 hours before bedtime. And eat smaller meals.
  • 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 signs. 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.
  • Allergies or 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 marked 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 object like food or a small toy, or after being around irritants like pollution from cigarettes or fireplace smoke.
  • Is unconscious or not breathing
  • Is gasping for breath
  • Is choking
  • Has trouble breathing or is breathing very fast when not coughing
  • Has severe coughing attacks or continuous coughing
  • Can't cry or talk because of breathing trouble
  • Grunts when breathing
  • Has blue lips or fingernails
  • May have a small object caught in their throat
  • Is breathing very fast (this is also a symptom of fever)
  • Looks very sick
  • Is younger than 1 year old and still has trouble breathing after you cleaned out their nose
  • Is younger than 4 months with a rectal temperature above 100.4 F. (Do not give fever medicine to infants.)
  • May have a lung infection or a reactive airways disease episode
  • Is wheezing or making a high-pitched whistle sound when breathing out or in
  • Can't take a deep breath because of chest pain or coughed-up blood
  • Has a fever over 104 F, with no improvement in 2 hours after fever medicine
  • Has a fever that lasts longer than 72 hours
  • Is vomiting
  • Turns red or purple when coughing
  • Drools or has trouble swallowing
  • Has a weak immune system or is not fully immunized
  • Give babies plenty of breast milk or formula.
  • Give older children water or juice mixed with water.



  • Thin mucus in a stuffy nose with saline nose drops.
  • Remove mucus from a baby's nose with a suction bulb.
  • Use a humidifier in your child's room or take your child into the bathroom with a steamy shower running.


  • Use a cool-mist humidifier to add moisture to the air.
  • Sit in the bathroom with a hot shower running and have your child breathe in the steam.
  • Let the child rest.
  • Avoid irritants, such as cigarette smoke.

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 be given only 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 a child with asthma, they may need to take steroids or other medications prescribed by the doctor.

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

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