It’s cold and flu season again, which means we’re seeing a lot of patients exhibiting symptoms of illnesses with coughing. A lot of parents are curious, “Can I tell what type of illness my child has by their cough?” or “How do I know what type of cough my child has when asked to describe it to a paediatrician?” Any time a child is exhibiting symptoms of an illness, including chronic coughing, I recommend making an appointment with your child’s paediatrician to determine what’s causing the coughing. Here’s a guide to the most frequent types of coughs and what illnesses they are commonly associated with.
A dry cough is one that lacks the production of mucus or phlegm. A dry cough is typically a good sign in adults as it indicates a lack of mucus in the lungs, throat, and nasal passages, but in infants, a dry cough can mean that while mucus is present, it’s unable to be removed from the body due to undeveloped lungs. Dry cough is often associated with allergies and asthma rather than chronic seasonal or contagious infections and should also be a cause of concern if it occurs frequently, for more than 2 days in a row, or in association with other symptoms such as a fever, vomiting, restlessness, and other signs of illness.
A wet cough, also known as a productive cough, is one that produces mucus, or phlegm. Wet coughs are the type often associated with the common cold and may be relieved with plenty of hydration and rest, but in infants, a wet cough should still be evaluated by a paediatrician to ensure a serious underlying problem like influenza, bronchitis, pneumonia, cystic fibrosis, or asthma are not to blame. Nasal decongestants, and cold medicine are not recommended for infants, but a humidifier or nebulizer may help lessen the severity of a wet cough until a paediatrician can be consulted.
Croup is caused by a viral or bacterial infection of the respiratory system, including the bronchial tubes, larynx, or trachea. Croup cough is distinguishable by the harsh “barking” sound exhibited by an infected child or infant. Croup cough is often not accompanied by most of the symptoms associated with other respiratory illnesses, like fever, runny nose, sneezing, etc. A raspy voice or sore throat, however, may be present, and often, symptoms are sporadic, reoccurring and disappearing on and off for a few hours for several days. While cough is often treatable in adults and children, infants with developing airwaves should be monitored to ensure air passages are remaining open and clear.
Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is a severe form of dry cough that accompanies frequent bouts of coughing. Whooping cough is most common in children and infants who have not been vaccinated against pertussis or who are too young to receive their vaccinations. While rare, whooping cough can be severe, and even fatal, for infants and young children. In extreme cases, seizures, pneumonia, lung failure, and brain damage have even been reported. Whooping cough is a concern for infants and young children because, while treatable with antibiotics, the condition is highly contagious yet has an incubation period of between 7 and 21 days, which means that medication is sometimes unlikely to have a significant impact on treating symptoms by the time they present in full force.
Common Illnesses Which Include Coughing
Many types of seasonal illnesses and allergies including coughing as a primary symptom. Often, each type of illness has other unique symptoms which help paediatricians identify the source of a cough. Some of the most common illnesses include:
1. COVID-19 (Coronavirus / SARS-CoV-2)
COVID-19 is an aggressive respiratory illness caused by a strain of coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2. It is spread via droplets released into the air when an infected individual coughs or sneezes and is highly contagious. The symptoms for COVID-19 are very similar to other colds and strains of influenza, so if you think your child may be infected, it’s important that you contact your paediatrician. These symptoms include:
- Cough (dry cough)
- Fever or chills
- Shortness of breath
- Sore throat
- New loss of taste or smell
While these symptoms are common, they do not always accompany a case of COVID-19. It’s necessary to take precautions to keep your children and the rest of your family safe from Coronavirus. Practice healthy social distancing habits of 1,5m, thorough handwashing techniques, wear a mask when out in public or when you’re in close quarters with others and sanitize shared toys or surfaces. The incubation period for SARS-CoV-2 is 14 days, but symptoms may begin to appear after 2 days.
2. RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus) Cough
Respiratory syncytial virus, commonly known as RSV, is a serious illness that can lead to other severe respiratory problems, including pneumonia, heart or lung failure, and more. RSV can be potentially life-threatening for infants whose airways are not fully developed, which can lead to choking and breathing issues. The symptoms of RSV can be similar to those of the common cold, but often the cough is chronic and includes thick yellow or green mucus.
Because RSV is a viral infection that cannot be treated with antibiotics, it’s important to take precautions to prevent your child from being exposed to it. Respiratory syncytial virus is contagious and transferred through contact with others. Never kiss your baby if you are showing cold or flu symptoms, and ensure that anyone who holds your child washes their hands before doing so. RSV can be contracted by any infant, but those who are born prematurely or who have problems with heart or lung function are especially susceptible to the illness. Keeping your child away from crowds, day-care facilities, and other children and adults who are showing signs and symptoms of a cold or the flu for the first few weeks after birth can prevent their chances of contracting RSV.
3. Common Cold Cough
The common cold is, like it’s name, extremely common. While symptoms may be mild to moderate for most adults, infants with symptoms of illness should always be seen by a paediatrician. The most common symptoms of the common cold include a wet cough, runny nose, sneezing, watery eyes, a fever, and congestion. Your child may also be less likely to follow their normal routine, including sleeping more, eating less, and being less active. All of these symptoms can also be an indication of other serious illnesses like influenza and whooping cough, so it’s always best to make an appointment with your child’s doctor if you notice anything out of the ordinary or detect a fever of more than 38,5.
4. Bronchitis Cough
Following a cold or flu, bronchial tubes can become swollen and infected, which can lead to chronic or acute bronchitis. When bronchial tubes swell, it can make it harder for air and mucus to pass through. In infants whose lungs are not as strong and fully developed as adults, this can cause serious problems. If your child has a barking or raspy cough, this could be a symptom of bronchitis or of pertussis. Both require immediate medical attention.
5. Acute Sinusitis Cough
The symptoms of sinusitis in infants and children can vary, but many experience severe cold-like symptoms, including a thick nasal discharge, chronic cough, swelling of the face, and a low-grade fever that persists.
6. Hay Fever Cough
Hay fever and allergies can cause an itchy throat and dry cough in adults and children, but again, infants with underdeveloped lungs and respiratory symptoms may experience chest pressure and discomfort or trouble breathing from coughing, the blockage of airways, an inability to produce mucus that can become lodged in airways, and more. Your child’s paediatrician can determine whether or not his or her coughing is a symptom of chronic or seasonal allergies or if a more serious condition is to blame.
When to Call a Doctor
Wondering when to take your child to the paediatrician? There are a few things to watch out for that can indicate a bacterial or viral infection or other illness. You should seek medical attention as soon as possible if your child is coughing and exhibiting any of the following symptoms:
- Vomiting or Gagging
- Urinating Less Frequently than Normal
- Asthmatic or Having Trouble Breathing
- Sleeping Excessively
- Refusing Food
- Less Active than Usual
- Having a Fever of More than 38,5
Make an appointment with your child’s paediatrician today if your little one has a fever or if you are concerned he or she may have an illness. In the meantime, provide plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration and use a humidifier if possible to ease his or her discomfort and to allow for easier breathing.