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Coughs in children

Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed by Roger HendersonReviewed on 29.04.2024 | 3 minutes read

A cough is the most common illness in a child. At times it can sound really bad but is not always a sign that there is anything very concerning. 

A cough can be caused due to viruses like COVID-19, colds or flu, bacteria like chest infections or pneumonia, and it can also be cause by allergies or asthma. Typically viral coughs last for 1 to 2 weeks, resolving on their own –they can last longer but are hopefully improving in that time and your child should be well.

Doctor’s advice

Are there different types of cough? 

Yes, there certainly are, and certain coughs are characteristic of particular infections or conditions.

We’ll take you through them, so see if you can work out the cause of your child’s cough.

A barking cough is caused by swelling in the upper airway.- this goes down to the pharynx and larynx, deep in the throat. Croup is usually the culprit of a barking cough, and it usually affects children under 3 years old. It usually starts in the middle of the night and the child can develop a noisy alarming breathing called stridor.

Whooping cough is caused by a bacterial infection of the airways called pertussis. The child can have spells of back-to-back coughing without being about to take a breath. After this they take in a deep breath that makes a whooping sound. They can also have a temperature with this cough. The UK’s childhood vaccine programme protects against pertussis.

A wheeze is a high-pitched whistling sound on taking a breath, and if this accompanies a cough, it indicates the lower airways are swollen. This can happen in bronchitis, and is often called viral-induced wheeze, or with asthma.

Most coughs get worse at night, because the mucus from the nose drips to the back of the throat when the child lies, irritating the lining of the airways and causing them to cough. This can happen in colds, flu, chest infections and asthma.

Asthma often makes coughs worse in the early hours and morning, and children may feel a tightness across their chest that is relieved by their blue inhaler (salbutamol).

Any more causes?

A daytime cough may be prompted by cold air or allergens getting into the lungs.

The common cold can cause a cough with a mild fever. If the temperature stays persistently high then it could be pneumonia, especially if the child is breathing fast or lethargic. 

A cough can cause vomiting if a child coughs so much that it triggers their gag reflex at the back of their throat and makes them vomit. This is nothing to worry about, unless the vomiting continues.

A persistent cough will last for weeks, and may be caused by picking up back-to-back viruses, especially if you notice a runny or blocked nose and possibly conjunctivitis. Asthma and allergies can cause an ongoing cough as well. If it lasts longer than 3 weeks, it’s worth speaking to their doctor.

Pharmacist recommended products

Children (1 year plus) Cough and Cold Kit
Effective relief for
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Reduces fever
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Relieves pain.
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Relieves blocked nose
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Soothing vapour rub
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Multivitamin including vitamin d for immune support
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Aid recovery
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Suitable from 1 year
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For both chesty and dry coughs
More info
Recommended by pharmacist
Why this Health Kit

Upper respiratory viral infections, such as the common cold, tend to occur frequently in preschool and primary school aged children. Children often build up their immunity during the early years when mixing with other children at school.

This health kit aims to:

  • Relieve blocked nose
  • Soothe a chesty or dry cough
  • Reduce fever
  • Help boost the immune system.

Snufflebabe is an ointment that combines soothing, natural eucalyptus and thyme oil with menthol to help clear blocked noses in children and babies over 3 months.

It is a gentle and mild decongestant with proven ingredients to help clear blocked noses, helping children and babies to breathe, feed and sleep more easily.

Bronchostop Junior is a reliable, fast-acting cough syrup for children from 1 year to relieve any cough associated with a cold, both dry and chesty.

Key features include:

  • Natural honey and Marshmallow dry extract
  • Pleasant strawberry flavour
  • Alcohol-free
  • Lactose and gluten-free
  • Free of GMO
  • Free from artificial dyes
  • Suitable for use during the day and night

Calpol Sugar-Free Infant Suspension is a strawberry-flavoured oral suspension for children. It relieves the symptoms of fever, cold and flu, and other general aches and pains.

Wellbaby Multi-vitamin Liquid

During the first two years, children have a very high nutritional need in relation to their size. Vitamins play an important role in maintaining healthy growth. Water-soluble vitamins can be used up or lost quickly; therefore, it is important that your child receives the recommended vitamins daily.

Wellbaby Multi-vitamin Liquid includes 14 vitamins & minerals, including:

  • Vitamins A, C and D as recommended by the UK Department of Health.(*)
  • Vitamin D is present in the preferred D3 form, as found in the body, to provide the recommended level of 10µg vitamin D. (**)
  • Vitamin D is needed for normal growth and development of bone in children. It also contributes to their normal immune system function.
  • Iron which contributes to the normal cognitive development of children.

How is a cough treated in children?

Most coughs are treated with over-the-counter medication. If your child is under 6, we recommend glycerol syrup and paracetamol. If they are 6 or over, you can get a syrup for chesty or dry coughs, depending on how they sound. Paracetamol help with any associated pain or fever.

If you think an allergy is causing the cough, you can give your child antihistamine syrup.

Most coughs should resolve within 2 weeks. If the cough doesn’t resolve after 2 to 3 weeks or it is getting worse, you should contact your doctor.

If your doctor suspects asthma, they might give a trial of a salbutamol inhaler to see if that helps with the cough and any other associated symptoms, although asthma is not usually diagnosed until the child is over 5.

When should I take them to a doctor?

If your child’s cough lasts longer than 2 weeks or is worsening, they are coughing up green/brown phlegm, complaining of pain in the chest then you should speak to a doctor. If your child is breathing differently or making noises when they breathe it is important to speak to someone straight away.  

It is also advised to attend the emergency department if they have a very high temperature, not improving with paracetamol, reduced eating or drinking, or they are not their usual playful self; crying or lethargic. If their lips, face or mouth is going blue, they are showing signs of dehydration or they are struggling to breathe, call 999 for an ambulance.  

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Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed by Roger Henderson
Reviewed on 29.04.2024
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