It may be upsetting to hear your toddler cough, but coughs are usually a very mild condition. Read our advice on how to look after your toddler when they have a cough, what medicine you can give them and what you should avoid.
A cough is a reflex action from an irritation of the nerve receptors in the throat or windpipe. While it may be heartbreaking to hear your toddler cough, it usually means they have a mild illness, rather than a serious one.
Most coughs are the result of a viral infection, so are extremely contagious. The virus can spread easily, either by breathing in infected air droplets or by direct or indirect contact with someone who has the cough virus already.
Some toddlers may push beads or other small objects into their ears, so this could be another reason to why he or she is coughing. The ear canal is served by the same nerve that carries the cough reflex from the lungs, so if your toddler is coughing without any further symptoms, have a look in your toddler’s ear or get your doctor to check them out.
If your toddler isn’t wheezing or having breathing difficulties when they cough, it’s most likely they have a straightforward cough. Your toddler may have all the usual cold symptoms from a runny nose and sneezing to watery eyes.
If your toddler has a bark-like cough, they may have croup. Your toddler may have a hoarse croaky voice, a barking cough and stridor (a whistling noise when breathing in). Croup is usually the result of a virus, but can also come from allergies or a change in temperature at night. Croup is fairly common and easily treatable, so take your toddler along to your doctor.
If your toddler is coughing persistently, they may have whooping cough. You will hear a cough, cough, cough, followed by a hoop as they inhale air again. Other symptoms include a runny nose, sneezing and a high temperature. Whooping cough is a bacterial infection and is less common nowadays since the increase in vaccinations. Make sure your toddler’s vaccines are up-to-date. See your doctor if you think your toddler has whooping cough.
Cough with no other symptoms
If your toddler is coughing, but has no other symptoms, they may have inhaled a foreign object. If you can remember a choking episode at the beginning of the cough, see your doctor straightaway. Your toddler may need a chest x-ray and if there are any foreign bodies in the lungs, they will need to be removed.
If your toddler has a raised temperature or headaches with their cough, then you can give them baby/child paracetamol, but make sure you always read the packet before giving anything to young children.
Over-the-counter cough medicines should be avoided completely, unless prescribed by your doctor.
If you’re concerned about your child when they are unwell, the best thing to do is to consult your doctor, especially before giving any medication you’re unsure about.
It’s not a serious illness as such, but if your toddler has a severe cough where he or she is coughing up mucus they may vomit, as the large amount of mucus may trigger their vomiting reflex.
If your toddler has a persistent, non-productive (not coughing up mucus) cough at night, if your toddler coughs after exercise or when in cold air, the cough may suggest asthma, especially if there is a family history. See your doctor if you think this is the case. If your child is struggling to breathe at any time, take them straight to the hospital.
If your toddler complains of having an earache with their cough, they may have an ear infection, which needs to be checked out by your doctor. Your doctor will be able to prescribe antibiotics.
If your toddler has a straightforward cough or a cough that has followed a cold, then it will most likely clear up within a week so there’s no need to visit your doctor.
However, if your toddler has a high temperature that won’t come down after taking baby/child paracetamol then head to your doctor.
Also go to the doctor if you think your toddler has croup, whooping cough, asthma or an ear infection.
Keeping your toddler well rested and hydrated is key.
You can also try steam inhalation to soothe their airways. Turn on a hot bath or shower, close all doors and windows and sit with your toddler as he or she inhales the steam in the room. It might be an idea to take in their favourite book or toy to keep them occupied.
If your toddler is having trouble sleeping because of a blocked nose, try adding an extra pillow or two to raise their head.
While you should avoid giving toddlers over-the-counter cough medicines, a spoonful of honey may be just as effective.
Essentially there’s no exact way to prevent your toddler from catching the cough or cold virus. Teaching your toddler simple good hygiene methods, such as washing their hands regularly with warm water and soap, will help stop the infection from spreading.
Make sure you also wash your hands regularly, especially when looking after your ill toddler and make sure the rest of your household does the same.
It’s a good idea to keep your carpets and rugs vacuumed and clean, as your toddler will most likely crawl or play there and dust can cause coughs and allergic reactions.
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