Baby cough

Although it can sound awful when your baby or toddler has a cough, it's not usually a sign of a serious condition. Still, it’s important to know what additional symptoms might mean it’s time to see the doctor. Learn about the different types of coughs – dry, chesty, productive or barking – and the illnesses that can cause them, and what to do for your baby or toddler with a cough to keep him or her comfortable.

What Can Cause a Cough in Your Baby or Toddler?

Coughs are almost always due to an irritation of the air passages. When the nerve endings in your baby’s throat, windpipe or lungs sense the irritation, air is reflexively and forcefully ejected through the passageways. Basically, coughing helps keep your little one’s airways clear. The most common cause of coughs in babies, toddlers and older children is mucus, a fluid that cleans and moisturises the nasal passages. When a lot of mucus is secreted – such as during a cold, for example – this fluid can drip down into the back of the throat, irritating the airways and triggering a cough. Coughs are usually associated with respiratory illnesses such as cold or flu. However, a cough can also be caused by allergies, ingestion of a foreign object (such as a small toy or a nut) or a temporary irritant that is breathed in, like paint fumes or tobacco smoke.

Why Don’t All Coughs Sound the Same?

Not all coughs are created equal. Your baby might have a chesty cough, a dry cough or a barking cough. If your child brings up phlegm when coughing, you might hear this referred to as a productive or wet cough. You might notice that your baby is coughing more at night or even at certain times of year. A cough might be accompanied by other symptoms like wheezing or even vomiting. Most often, it’s the location of the irritation that affects the sound of your baby’s cough. For example, an irritation of the trachea (windpipe) or bronchi (the tubes that branch from the trachea into the lungs) might sound ‘chestier’ – deeper and raspier – than a cough caused by an upper respiratory infection like a cold. Although some types of cough can be very distinctive – for example the barking cough of croup – the way a cough sounds doesn't always indicate what's triggering the cough, although it may be an important clue. Your child’s doctor will also consider other factors and symptoms when determining the cause of your baby’s cough.

How to Help Your Baby or Toddler Who Has a Cough

What to do for a baby with a cough depends on what’s causing the cough in the first place. For example, the treatment your child’s doctor would recommend for a cough caused by asthma will likely differ from what to give your baby for a cough caused by a viral infection. That said, many coughs are caused by viruses. Most of the time, the virus is allowed to run its course, and the cough will eventually go away when the infection clears. Don’t give your baby or young child any over the counter cough or cold medicines, unless it’s recommended by your child’s doctor. These may produce serious side effects and have not been shown to be effective.

Home Remedies for Your Baby’s Cough

Most coughs will go away on their own, but in the meantime you may wish to try the following to help your child feel more comfortable:

  • Honey can be given to toddlers and older children. For example, a warm honey and lemon drink can sometimes help soothe a cough by coating the lining of the throat, easing the irritation that’s causing the cough. Keep in mind, however, that you shouldn’t give honey to a baby under 1 year old.

  • Make sure your little one gets plenty of fluids

  • Turning on a cool mist humidifier may help, especially if the air in your home is very dry.

It’s always safest to consult your health visitor or doctor about any home remedies for your baby’s cough.

Causes of Baby and Toddler Coughs and Their Symptoms

To treat your child’s cough, your doctor will first need to diagnose the root cause. A cough can be a symptom of many different illnesses and conditions, each of which may produce additional symptoms. Click on the links below to learn about some of these illnesses and conditions that can cause a cough, or scroll through the list of symptoms for an indication of what may be causing the cough.

Allergies

 

Allergy symptoms:

  • Dry cough
  • Red and itchy eyes
  • Sneezing
  • Runny nose
  • Blocked nose
  • Raised, itchy red rash (hives)
  • Wheezing
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Shortness of breath. 

 

Allergies can produce a persistent dry cough in your baby or older child, along with other symptoms like itchy eyes, sneezing or a skin rash. If your baby has a food allergy, you may need to remove certain ingredients from your little one’s diet – for a while at least. For other allergies, removing potential allergens from your home can help prevent attacks.

While most allergies are more of an annoyance than a health risk, in some cases the symptoms can be severe. Some of the symptoms may also overlap with those of asthma. If you suspect your baby’s cough is down to any kind of allergy, see your child’s doctor for a diagnosis and personalised advice on how to manage it.

Call 999 or go straight to A&E if your child

  • has trouble breathing

  • seems dazed or confused

  • has blue skin or lips

  • becomes limp or loses consciousness.

Asthma

Asthma symptoms:
 

  • Wheezing or coughing, especially at night, after vigorous movement or exercise or when your child has a cold
  • A cough that doesn’t go away or keeps coming back
  • Shortness of breath
  • Complaining of tight feeling in the chest or tummy ache
  • Tiredness, playing less or wanting to be carried more than usual.

 

Asthma is the most common chronic condition affecting children in the UK. Although symptoms vary widely from child to child, a prominent symptom you might notice in your baby or older child – as well as coughing – is wheezing or a whistling noise in the chest during breathing.

There’s no cure for asthma, but the symptoms can usually be managed with simple treatment or medication, often given in the form of an inhaler. The symptoms of asthma can be similar to those of other conditions, so it’s important to see your child’s doctor for a proper diagnosis and treatment plan. Asthma can sometimes be triggered by certain allergens or irritants. If your child has asthma, taking steps to reduce the things that trigger it around the home may help, such as using dust mite-proof covers on your little one’s mattress and pillows.

Bronchiolitis

Bronchiolitis symptoms:

  • Dry, persistent cough
  • Slight fever
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Wheezing
  • Feeding less than usual
  • Having fewer wet nappies
  • Vomiting after feeds
  • Fast breathing
  • Difficulty breathing (skin may be drawn in around the ribs).

 

Bronchiolitis is an infection that affects the bronchioles, the small breathing tubes inside the lungs, and can cause a dry and persistent cough. It’s a common disease in early childhood, mostly affecting babies and toddlers under 2 years of age.

Bronchiolitis is usually caused by the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which causes inflammation and swelling in the bronchioles. This inflammation can hinder air flow.

Bronchiolitis is not the same as bronchitis, which is an infection of larger airways called the bronchi.

Bronchiolitis is usually mild and gets better by itself in two or three weeks; but see a doctor if you’re worried or the cough or other symptoms seem to be getting worse.

Check your little one often, make sure your baby gets plenty of fluids and try to make him or her as comfortable as possible. Keeping your child upright could make breathing easier, especially when feeding.

Seek urgent medical attention if

  • your child has difficulty breathing or is breathing fast

  • you notice pauses in your child’s breathing

  • you find it difficult to wake your child or your child has trouble staying awake

  • your child’s skin or the inside of the lips or tongue turn blue or blueish.

Choking

Choking symptoms:

  • Sudden cough
  • Trouble breathing
  • Gasping or wheezing
  • Skin turning bluish
  • Appearing panicked
  • Being unable to talk, cry or make a noise
  • Becoming limp or unconscious.

 

If something is swallowed the wrong way — like food, liquid or another object — then your child may start to cough suddenly. This is the lungs' way of trying to dislodge the item and clear the airways.

If your child suddenly starts coughing uncontrollably for no obvious reason (especially if you think he or she may have been playing with a small object) or is having trouble breathing, get medical attention immediately – call 999 and put your phone in hands-free mode so you can follow the operator’s instructions if necessary. However careful you are, there’s always a small possibility of your baby accidentally getting something stuck in his or her throat, so it’s a great idea to be prepared for this eventuality just in case. The way you help a choking child will depend on the child’s age, so ask your health visitor what techniques are suitable for your baby, toddler or older child. Even better, ask about baby first aid classes in your local area. To help prevent choking incidents, don’t give your baby or toddler pieces of hard food, such as nuts. Never leave your child unattended while eating and – along with other baby proofing measures in your home – put anything that may be a choking hazard out of reach.

A Cold

Cold symptoms:
 

  • Cough
  • Runny or blocked nose
  • Sneezing
  • High temperature or fever
  • Reduced appetite
  • Sore throat
  • Headache
  • Pressure in ears and face.

 

There might be times when your baby or toddler seems to catch one cold after another. This is perfectly normal. Young children can easily have eight or more colds a year because they haven’t built up any immunity to the many hundreds of different cold viruses that are out there.

The viruses that cause colds can spread from one person to another via a sneeze or a cough, or from a contaminated surface or hand.

The symptoms tend to go away on their own in about five to seven days, although young children or babies could take as long as two weeks to recover fully.

Colds are common and usually harmless, but cold-like symptoms can sometimes be an early sign of another illness, such as croup or bronchiolitis to name just two examples. If the symptoms change or get worse over time it’s best to let your health visitor or doctor know.

Croup

Croup symptoms:

  • Cold-like symptoms at first
  • Barking cough
  • Hoarse voice
  • Coughing more at night
  • Rasping noise (known as ‘stridor’) when breathing in.

 

Croup is an inflammation of the larynx (voice box) and trachea (windpipe) and can cause a barking cough in children, especially babies and toddlers. It’s usually caused by the parainfluenza virus.

Croup tends to occur most often in babies and toddlers between the ages of 6 months and 3 years, especially in the autumn and winter months. See a doctor for a diagnosis if your baby or toddler has what sounds like it might be a croup cough. In the meantime, stay calm and sit your child upright to make him or her more comfortable. Make sure your little one gets plenty of fluids. Call 999 if your child is struggling to breathe, has blueish lips or skin, becomes limp or unusually develops a sudden or very high fever (38 degrees Celsius or above in a baby under 3 months old and 39 degrees Celsius or above in an older baby).

Flu

Flu symptoms:

  • A sudden fever of 38 degrees Celsius or above
  • Trouble sleeping
  • No appetite
  • Headaches
  • Aches
  • Tiredness
  • Sore throat
  • Dry cough
  • Diarrhoea and/or tummy ache
  • Nausea and/or vomiting.

 

Flu, short for influenza, is caused by a virus. It comes with some of the same symptoms as the common cold, including a dry hacking cough. However, with the flu your baby or older child will likely feel much more poorly.

Flu symptoms usually go away on their own in about a week or two, and you can help keep your little one comfortable with plenty of fluids and rest. Your child’s doctor may also recommend some form of treatment to help ease the symptoms. Flu can spread in coughs and sneezes or by contact with germs that can live on people’s hands and other surfaces for up to 24 hours. You can help prevent the spread of flu by washing hands frequently with soap and water, and catching coughs and sneezes in a tissue. The best way to protect your child from the flu is with the flu vaccine, which is usually given every year at the start of the flu season (in the autumn). It can be offered to children over 2 years old in the form of a nasal spray. For children with long-term conditions between the age of 6 months and 2 years, the vaccine may be given as an injection. The precise age groups of children who are offered the vaccine routinely may change from year to year. Ask your health visitor or doctor whether a flu jab is recommended for your little one.

Pneumonia

Pneumonia symptoms:

  • Dry or productive cough
  • Fast or shallow breathing
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sweating, shivering
  • Crying more than normal
  • Persistent cough
  • Wheezing
  • Chest pains
  • Lips or nails turning bluish.

 

Pneumonia usually occurs when a viral respiratory tract infection spreads to the chest and lungs, but it can also be caused by a bacterial infection.

If you suspect your child or baby has pneumonia, contact your doctor or call 111 straight away. The kind of treatment your child needs for pneumonia depends on whether it’s caused by bacteria or a virus and how severe the inflammation is, so it’s important to get a proper diagnosis as soon as possible. If you notice more serious symptoms such as breathing difficulties, limpness or blueish skin or lips call 999 or go to your nearest A&E.

Sinusitis

Sinus infection symptoms:

  • Coughing
  • Fussiness
  • Difficulty feeding
  • Green or yellow discharge (snot) from the nose
  • Swelling or tenderness around the eyes, cheeks or forehead
  • Bad breath
  • Stuffy nose
  • Headache.

 

Sinusitis is inflammation of the passages behind the nose (known as the sinuses). If might be caused by a bacterial infection, but it could also be a complication of a cold or an allergy inflammation. The mucus from the sinus may drip back into your baby’s throat and trigger an irritated cough.

Sinus infections sometimes clear up by themselves, but others can be treated with antibiotics so check in with your child’s doctor if you notice any of the above symptoms in your little one.

Whooping Cough

Whooping cough symptoms:

  • Intense, persistent, unstoppable cough
  • A ‘whooping’ sound when breathing or coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cold symptoms in the first week or two
  • Vomiting as a result of coughing up thick mucus
  • Face or lips looking bluish.

 

Whooping cough is caused by the pertussis bacteria, which attacks the lining of the bronchi and bronchioles — breathing passages in the lungs — making them inflamed and narrowing the airways.

Babies under 6 months old are at the biggest risk of complications from whooping cough, which can be a life-threatening condition and may require hospital treatment. The good news is whooping cough in babies can be prevented by vaccination. If your child does get whooping cough, the infection can be treated with an antibiotic but it’s important to start the treatment early. If you have any concerns that your baby or toddler may have whooping cough, see your child’s doctor immediately.

When to See the Doctor

When your baby or toddler has a cough it’s often the sign of a mild illness that will clear up by itself, but make an appointment to see the doctor if your child has a cough that’s lasted for more than three weeks or if you’re worried for any reason. See the doctor straight away or call 111 if your child’s cough seems to be getting progressively worse or your baby, toddler or older child shows any of the following symptoms:

  • Laboured or rapid breathing

  • Rasping noise when inhaling (stridor), which only occurs when your child is upset

  • Dehydration (signs of dehydration include sunken eyes or fontanelle, drowsiness or fewer wet nappies than usual)

  • Excessive sleepiness or drowsiness

  • Fever of 38 degrees Celsius or above for more than 5 days (if your baby is over 3 months old)

Seek urgent medical attention – call 999 or go straight to A&E – if your child

  • starts turning blue around the lips

  • pauses during breathing

  • breathes irregularly or grunts while breathing

  • makes a rasping noise (stridor) when inhaling all the time (not just when upset)

  • has a rash that doesn’t fade if you press it with a glass

  • cries in an unusually high-pitched voice and is hard to settle

  • is less than 3 months old and has a temperature of 38 degrees Celsius or higher.

How to Prevent Your Baby Getting a Cough

Most coughs are viral, so the best thing you can do to help prevent them is to avoid letting your child come into contact with a virus to begin with. It may not be possible to prevent infections completely, but here are some ways to lower the chances of catching a virus:

  • Wash your and your child’s hands regularly with soap and water, and make sure that all family members and carers do this also

  • Trap coughs and sneezes in a tissue

  • Throw used tissues in the bin immediately

  • Wash dishes and utensils in the dishwasher or in hot, soapy water

  • Don’t share toothbrushes, cutlery, cups and plates.

If your baby’s cough is caused by something other than a viral infection, ask your doctor for advice on how to manage the cough associated with the condition or what treatment is available for the condition itself.

FAQs at a Glance

  • Seek urgent medical attention if your baby has a cough and/or

    • difficulty breathing
    • a rasping noise when inhaling (stridor)
    • irregular breathing or grunting while breathing
    • dehydration
    • unusual, high-pitched crying
    • blueish lips or skin
    • a rash that doesn’t fade when you press a glass up against it
    • a fever of 38 degrees Celsius or higher in a baby under 3 months of age.
  • You can do a few things to ease the symptoms of a cough in your baby or toddler:

    • Keep your little one hydrated
    • If your child is more than 1 year old, a soothing warm honey and lemon drink may help ease the symptoms
    • Treat any fever with a medicine recommended by your doctor
    • Don’t give your child over-the-counter cough or cold medicines
    • If the cough is causes by an allergy, try to remove whatever the allergen is.
  • A cough is a reflex that occurs when something is irritating your baby's airways. Mucus is a common irritant. Babies are apt to get the occasional cough due to something like

    • the common cold
    • flu
    • croup
    • bronchiolitis
    • allergies
    • food or drink ‘going down the wrong way’.
  • Coughs are often caused by a respiratory illness like a cold or flu, and generally go away when the underlying illness clears up.


    However, a cough can also be caused by other illnesses, infections or conditions that might need treatment.


    If you aren’t sure what’s behind your baby’s cough see your child’s doctor for a diagnosis and treatment or advice.

The Bottom Line

Like a sore throat or the sniffles, coughs are one of those symptoms that your baby or toddler might get from time to time. Although it’s usually nothing to worry about, if you're concerned about your child’s cough or have any questions about a particular illness, check in with your doctor or ask your health visitor for advice. In the meantime, give your little one plenty of comforting hugs kisses. With a little tender loving care, your baby’s coughs and sniffles should clear up soon and your little bundle of joy will be healthy and happy again before you know it.

How we wrote this article
The information in this article is based on the expert advice found in trusted medical and government sources, such as the National Health Service (NHS). You can find a full list of sources used for this article below. The content on this page should not replace professional medical advice. Always consult medical professionals for full diagnosis and treatment.