Why won't my child stop coughing?

A common phone call we often receive is "Why is my child coughing?". You might be wondering: What should I do to treat a cough? When should I call my pediatrician? A cough is the result of irritation in your child's airway. Coughing is usually an automatic reflex, though there are some instances in which a cough can be voluntary, such as when your child has mucus that needs to be cleared from their throat. Children with a cough can sometimes vomit after coughing. For children under 8 years old, before they can cough and spit, this is an effective way for them to clear mucus. Most coughs are the result of a viral illness like a cold and improve with time. Some coughs can indicate that your child is suffering from allergies or post nasal drip. Less frequently, a cough can be caused by a bacterial infection that requires antibiotics. And some babies will occasionally cough because it is a new sound and will get a reaction out of you!

A dry, tight cough that is accompanied by difficulty in breathing can indicate wheezing, as found in cases of asthma. This type of cough should be evaluated by your pediatrician.

So what should a parent do to treat a child's cough? We generally do not recommend the use of over the counter cough and cold preparations for children. Natural remedies, such as a teaspoon of honey (preferably buckwheat honey) before bedtime can help children over 1 year old to reduce symptoms overnight. Giving honey to children under 1 year of age is not recommended due to the risk of botulism.

So when should you call your pediatrician for cough and possible need to be seen? Any time your child coughs up blood, complains of chest pain, difficulty breathing (not just nasal congestion), shortness of breath, is breathing very quickly, is sucking in the muscles between their ribs or their sternal notch (which is called retractions), flaring their nostrils to get more air in, or has high pitched breathing at rest. And as always, there is never a wrong time to call your pediatrician, and we always encourage our patients to call us when in doubt.

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