Children's Hospital Colorado

Types of Coughs in Children

A girl coughing into her arm

Coughs are good. They’re the body’s built-in mechanism for protecting the airways and fighting infection — a signal your child is sick, but also a part of getting better. But they can be annoying, and occasionally they can be a sign of more concerning problems. How can you tell?

Dry vs. wet coughs in kids

In general, says pediatric pulmonologist Mark Brown, MD, coughs come in two classes: wet and dry. Dry coughs are typically the result of irritation in the upper airways — the sinuses, throat and vocal cords. Irritation in the airways below the windpipe can also produce a dry cough, but generally, the lower airways produce mucus in response to irritation — which leads to the other type: wet coughs.

Both types tend to get worse at bedtime (due to what doctors rather grossly call “secretions” resettling when kids go from upright to lying down), and both tend to be most present in the winter, when viruses are making the rounds. But there are plenty of non-seasonal reasons kids might be coughing as well.

As it turns out, the sound of a cough can tell medical professionals like Dr. Brown a lot, from type to severity. Here’s what he looks for.

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