Coughs in children and how to treat them

Coughing is either due to an irritation of the airways or an attempt to expel something from the throat or chest.

We identify the different types of coughs that can affect your child and how best to treat them.

Despite what some may believe, a cough is a symptom, not a disease in itself, and so is associated with various possible causes, not all of which are serious.

We chat to Sister Lilian, who identifies different types of coughs, causes of coughing, and how best to treat coughs.

Causes of coughing

  • Coughing is either due to an irritation of the airways or an attempt to expel something from the throat or chest. There are a number of possibilities and once again, not all are mutually exclusive.
  • Excess mucus causes irritation in your baby’s throat or chest, triggering a cough response. Mucus is produced by the membrane lining of the airways and a little is always present to keep the membranes moist. Problems arise if excess mucus is made by the body to try and remove an irritant or allergenic substance, or infection occurs as mucus is a good medium for bacterial and viral growth. Apart from this, the early years of life are generally more mucusy, with more colds and runny noses than later.
  • Dairy and grain products are the most likely dietary triggers of coughs. Foods with preservatives, colourants, and flavour enhancers can also cause excess mucus and a cough reaction.
  • Allergies to any substance ingested orally (as described above) or inhaled into the airways (like pollen) may cause a cough. Dust mites and pets are also possible causes of an allergic cough.
  • Smoking in your child’s environment is a common cause of a chronic cough. Smoking outside the house helps, although it is not an absolute cure, as the nicotine is in the respiratory system of the smoker and exhaled over the child in close contact. Quitting is the only option that will really help.
  • Babies born to smokers will be far more likely to have respiratory problems and be more prone to allergies generally.
  • Conditions like bronchitis, bronchiolitis, croup, flu, asthma, and whooping cough are all characterised by persistent coughing, and require specific treatment as well as general lifestyle and dietary adjustments.
  • Dry, cold areas or seasons make some babies more prone to coughing, and humid climates affect others. For chronic coughing, a move might be required if self-help measures do not sufficiently improve the cough.
  • Young children and babies in crèches are more prone to coughs and if the problem is chronic, it is worthwhile choosing childcare where fewer children are looked after by the caregiver, or your baby is cared for at home by a trusted, trained nanny.
  • Coughs often follow or are part of persistent mucus discharges from the airway membranes and this can usually be treated with lifestyle and dietary changes.

Different types of coughs

Wet cough

This is when you can hear mucus in the airways when your baby breathes, or you can see it because your baby has a runny nose or coughs or vomits up mucus. This mucus will mostly be profuse and although any colour is possible, it is not so thick or sticky that it cannot be expelled.

Dry cough

No mucus or very little of it is expelled from the airways with a dry cough and so your baby does not cough it up. There is seldom a freely running nose, nor does one readily hear it in the airways as your baby breathes, although his voice might be very nasal and altered from normal.

Tight cough

This is related to a dry cough, although productive mucus is possible. A tight cough is recognised by the child’s chest caving in during the coughing episode, which sounds painful and is often accompanied by dry retching and debilitating tiredness.

Irritation cough

This cough is mostly due to a postnasal drip and originates from a constant clearing of the throat.

Spasmodic cough

A cough that comes in spasms and then is not present for quite a time can be called spasmodic. There will mostly be a chest infection or lower airway condition like croup or bronchitis, and coughing seems painful.

Treating a cough

During a bout of coughing, approach your child calmly, comfort him but do not show anxiety, preferably prop him up to ease breathing and ensure good ventilation. Try these 14 tips according to what your child’s symptoms are:

  1. Increase fresh fruit and vegetables in his diet and reduce mucus-producing foods such as dairy and grain products, sweet and savoury treats and foods with additives.
  2. Run a humidifier at night, with a little eucalyptus oil added. This helps disinfect and soothe dry, inflamed membranes. Clean and dry the humidifier after each use.
  3. A few drops of eucalyptus oil under the hot water tap when running your baby’s bath may also help open his airways for the night.
  4. Homeopathic remedies for coughing are very helpful for a wide range of coughs, including croup, loose productive- or dry cough, and wheezing or tight coughs, but remember that asthma needs professional care.
  5. If stress seems to be the cause of an asthmatic cough, try and spend more time with your little one and teach him ways to relax, due to the frequent emotional triggers associated with asthma. Outings into nature are a good and healthy way of doing this.
  6. If allergies to environmental factors trigger an attack, you will have to try and exclude them.
  7. Steam treat with a balsam containing benzoin – add a capful to a basin of boiling water, drape a towel over your child’s head and encourage him to inhale these vapours, but take care to avoid burning. This helps for a tight, dry cough as well as in most cases of croup and persistent coughing.
  8. In acute attacks of croup at night, close windows and doors and boil a kettle (which does not automatically switch off) to make your baby’s breathing easier.
  9. Apply a layer of cold ointment to your baby’s chest and throat, or onto a vest if the skin reacts with a rash, to help relieve a tight- or croup-like cough at night.
  10. For whooping cough, give a homeopathic remedy to relieve the characteristic dry cough.
  11. Cut an onion into rings. Cover with pure honey and leave for four hours. Remove the rings. Give one teaspoon of the remaining frothy liquid three times a day for coughing from postnasal drip.
  12. To relieve nasal congestion, no matter the type of mucus, use a homeopathic nasal spray.
  13. Clear, burning mucus with streaming, red eyes – give the homeopathic remedy allium cepa or the tissue salt ferrum phos.
  14. If your baby has yellow-green discharge with a blocked nose, give him the homeopathic remedy, pulsatilla.

When to call the doctor

If your little one does not improve soon with self-help tips or the cough develops into something more serious, see your doctor as soon as possible.