Children's Hospital Colorado

Types of Coughs in Kids

Coughs are the body’s built-in mechanism for protecting the airways and fighting infection. They signal your child is sick, but also are a sign they’re getting better. Still, coughs can be annoying, and occasionally they can be a sign of more concerning problems. Our experts can help you distinguish between the different types of coughs, learn to ease your child’s symptoms with home remedies and know when to see a doctor.

Dry vs. wet coughs in kids

Children’s Hospital Colorado pediatric pulmonologist Mark Brown, MD, says that 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 — though a cough with asthma can start out dry, as well. Wet coughs are more likely to be a response to irritation in the lower airways, which can result in mucus.  

Both types of coughs tend to worsen at bedtime, when kids go from upright to lying down, and mucus and saliva resettle in the airways. Coughs are more present in the winter, when viruses are making the rounds, but there are also plenty of nonseasonal reasons kids might be coughing.

As a rule of thumb, the younger the child, the greater the chance of breathing trouble. Babies and toddlers have smaller airways, so while constriction or swelling might not be harmful to older kids, it can cause littler ones to have trouble breathing. Anytime a child seems to be struggling to get enough air, get emergency medical help right away. 

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

My child’s cough won’t go away

A typical viral infection tends to last about seven to 10 days, but at the height of cold season, there are dozens of viruses going around. “A virus evolves very quickly,” Dr. Brown says. “Relatively subtle changes mean your immune system doesn’t recognize it and can’t fight it off as well.”

That’s why you need a new flu vaccine every year: The shot you get is a mix of vaccinations against the forms of influenza virus experts think will be most prevalent in the coming season. That’s also why it’s possible, although less likely, to get flu even if you’ve been vaccinated.  

This is also why your daycare- and school-aged kids’ cough can hang around for weeks on end. 

“They get a virus that lasts seven to 10 days, and then they catch a different virus,” Dr. Brown says. “It’s just a string of not-serious viral infections that can keep a child coughing for weeks, even months.” 

Treating a child’s cough at home

For the most part, says Dr. Brown, treating a child’s cough at home is just like your grandmother told you: stay hydrated, eat well and get a lot of rest. Staying hydrated thins the mucus lining the airways, making it easier to cough and blow the nose. Dr. Brown also recommends keeping the nasal passages moist with saline nose drops or gel.  

Treatment is not always needed

Many children with coughs or nasal congestion are happy, play normally and sleep peacefully. Only treat symptoms if they cause discomfort, interrupt sleep or really bother your child (such as a hacking cough). 

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