Children's Hospital Colorado

Cough

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What is coughing?

Coughing is one way your body helps keep your lungs healthy. Coughing clears secretions from the lungs that contain bacteria, dust and other particles. While it is normal for children to cough once in a while, if your child coughs frequently it may be a sign that he or she is sick or has an underlying lung condition.

What causes coughing?

Coughing can be caused by many things. Coughing in children is most often caused by an infection of the airways or lungs, including viruses that cause the common cold, bronchiolitis, pneumonia, croup (a cough that sounds like a seal barking) or whooping cough (pertussis). Other common causes of cough in children include asthma, allergies, nasal congestion, gastroesophageal or acid reflux and tobacco smoke.

Rarer causes of cough in children include cystic fibrosis, aspiration (inhaling liquids, food or other foreign objects into the lungs), immune system problems and primary ciliary dyskinesia.   

Who gets a cough?

Everyone coughs at times. Coughing due to an infection of the airways or lungs usually lasts less than 3 weeks. A chronic cough (cough lasting longer than 4 weeks) may be a symptom of an underlying lung condition and should be evaluated by your doctor.

Helpful resources:

  • Healthy Children provides parents with health information on a variety of health issues associated with coughs and is based on research and information from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

How do providers at Children’s Hospital Colorado make a diagnosis?

Your provider will discuss your child’s symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam. Based on this information the provider may recommend a treatment or suggest more tests to determine the cause of your child’s cough.

What tests are used to diagnose the cause of a cough?

Many causes of cough do not require tests to make a diagnosis. Tests that are commonly used to diagnose the cause of a cough include chest x rays, pulse oximetry, lung function testing, and tests for infection. Other tests that may be recommended include swallowing tests, chest CTs, a sweat test for cystic fibrosis, blood work or bronchoscopy (.pdf)  (using a tiny fiber optic camera to look in the airways and lungs).

The treatment for a cough depends on what causes it. Coughing is a normal part of a cold or other lung infection and should not be suppressed. Over-the-counter cough medicines are not beneficial for children and are not approved for children under the age of 4. Using room humidifiers and encouraging children to drink fluids can be helpful in thinning out lung secretions. For children over the age of 1, a teaspoon of honey can soothe a cough. Avoiding tobacco smoke is important for all children.

Cough caused by asthma  is often treated with inhalers or breathing treatments.

If the cough is caused by another condition, the treatment will vary based on the best treatments available for that particular condition. Please see Conditions We Treat for more information about health issues that may be affecting your child’s cough.

Why choose Children’s Hospital Colorado for your child’s cough?

Children's Colorado Breathing Institute's mission is to provide comprehensive clinical care and expert consultation for children with common and complex breathing problems.

Areas of nationally recognized expertise include asthma , cystic fibrosis , airway anomalies and disease, pulmonary hypertension, apnea and sleep-disordered breathing, primary ciliary dyskinesia and children's interstitial lung disease. Children's Colorado has the depth and breadth of experience to treat the broad spectrum of all breathing conditions in children.

Families benefit from our team approach to breathing disorder treatment and our access to the latest in diagnostic testing for both infants and older children. Our experienced staff of pediatric specialists includes physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, nurses, dietitians, social workers and respiratory therapists. Our collaborative approach to asthma, breathing and lung care encourages and facilitates family involvement.

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