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Cough: Brief Version

What is a cough?

A cough is a sudden forcing of air from the lungs. It is a common symptom of illness. A cough helps gets infected fluid out of the lungs. Your child may have a dry cough or a wet cough. A wet cough is when your child coughs up mucus.

What causes a cough?

Most coughs are caused by a viral infection of the trachea (windpipe) or bronchi (larger air passages in the lungs).

How can I take care of my child?

  • Medicines to loosen the cough and thin the secretions.
    • Cough drops: Children over 6 years old can usually control coughing by sucking on cough drops. If you do not have cough drops, you can use hard candy.
    • Homemade cough syrup: For children over 1 year old, use 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of honey. Avoid honey until your child is 1 year old.
    • Warm liquids for coughing: Warm liquids such as warm lemonade, warm apple juice, or warm herbal tea usually relax the airway and loosen up the mucus. (Avoid this if your child is less than 4 months old.)
  • Cough-suppressant medicines.

    Cough and cold medicines are not as helpful as honey. Do not give them to children under 4 years old. Coughing helps protect the lungs by clearing out germs.

    Fluids. Make sure your child drinks lots of water. This loosens mucus and prevents dehydration.

  • Humidifiers. Dry air tends to make coughs worse. Use a humidifier.
  • Active and passive smoking. Don't let anyone smoke around your coughing child. The cough could last weeks longer with smoke exposure.

Call your child's doctor right away if:

  • Breathing becomes fast or difficult when not coughing.
  • Your child starts acting very sick.

Call your child's doctor during office hours if:

  • A fever lasts more than 3 days.
  • The cough lasts more than 3 weeks.
  • You have other questions or concerns.
Written by Barton D. Schmitt, MD, author of “My Child Is Sick,” American Academy of Pediatrics Books.
Pediatric Advisor 2013.2 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2012-05-15
Last reviewed: 2012-05-14
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2013 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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