Any GP surgery’s waiting room, especially in the winter, is likely to have at least one child who’s in with a cough. But for every parent who’s decided they definitely should take their infant along, there are probably plenty of others debating whether it’s necessary or not to make a doctor’s trip.
After all, coughs and colds are part of every small child’s life and sometimes it’s hard to tell what, exactly, you should be doing. There aren’t any absolute rules about when you should take a child with a cough to the doctor, and there are also plenty of times when the best thing to do is just wait it out and stock up on tissues, fluids and a good over-the-counter cough medicine.
With help from Dr Toni Hazell, an NHS GP working in Tottenham, London, we’ve put together a few suggestions to guide you on when to seek medical advice, but if you’re worried about your child’s cough then by all means call your doctor or head to the surgery.
Do note that it’s definitely a good idea to make an appointment if your child has another condition already, just to get everything checked out. In addition, if they seem to be having trouble breathing or they’re running a temperature, give the surgery a call.
And always get help immediately – ie, call for an ambulance if necessary and/or go straight to A&E – if they really can’t breathe, or they’re floppy and unresponsive.
Is a tickly or chesty cough worse?
If it’s a fairly ordinary-sounding cough, then it’s not terribly important whether it’s ‘tickly’ (or ‘dry’) or ‘chesty,” says Dr Toni. “The description often doesn’t add that much.”
Either a tickly cough or a chesty cough can come along with a cold, too annoyingly: do note that If it’s chesty and your child is bringing up odd-coloured mucus, though, an infection may be turning from viral to bacterial, and if they’re in distress, it may be worth making an appointment.
Which coughs, if any, should I take more seriously?
When you child has a barking cough
“Ollie started coughing yesterday and last night was horrendous – he sounded like a dog barking,” says icecreamloverpissedoffwithBE.
That barking sound is quite distinctive and it’s all too often a symptom of the viral infection croup. “Croup can be very distressing and is often easily treated with a one-off of steroids,” says Dr Toni.
And if you’re at all worried, especially if they’re wheezing when they breathe, do get in touch with your GP (or get more urgent medical help if they’re struggling for breath).
A barking cough can (very rarely) be a symptom of meningitis. If they have a rash as well, it’s important to do the ‘glass test’ – pressing a glass against the skin to see if the rash fades or not ) – and if it doesn’t, get help straight away.
When your child has a wheezing cough
Wheezing without barking is also worth taking note of. “Wheezing always makes us think ‘asthma’,” says Dr Toni, so especially if this has been going on for a while it’s a good idea to make an appointment.
Could my child’s cough be bronchiolitis?
Alternatively it could be the viral infection bronchiolitis. “Jacob has had bronchiolitis 3 times since he was born,” says Swanny 85. “The last time he had it was quite severe.”
Bronchiolitis is a viral infection, so antibiotics won’t treat it, but it can become quite bad, especially if it means your child can’t get fluids in or they’re struggling to breathe.
Bronchiolitis often brings with it a raspy cough, lack of appetite, fast breathing and a high temperature.
If you’re worried this is what it might be, do visit your GP who will be able to advise you on the best course of action to get your little one feeling better. “Oscar’s got a nasty cough, runny nose, temperature but is wheezing quite badly and seems very out of breath. I’m lucky that he’s never had a cold before but last time he had a cough it was bronchiolitis and I didn’t realise,” says JemmaPuddleduck on our forum.
Which coughs need urgent attention?
Whooping cough (find out more about whooping cough on the NHS website) is the key cough to take note of in babies and young children. The ‘whoop’ is the sound people make as they gasp after a bout of coughing, and try to get some air back through their swollen airways.
“What has shocked me this year is the huge increase in whooping cough,” says Anonymousmumdrum on our forum. “ The daughter of one of my colleagues was 3 weeks and admitted with whooping cough – he said it was extremely scary.”
The 5-in-1 vaccination offered to babies at 8, 12 and 16 weeks protects against whooping cough but there are still outbreaks of the disease and babies who are too young for vaccination are the ones most at risk.
“Pertussis [another word for whooping cough] is on the rise again,” says Dr Toni. “In fact kids don’t always ‘whoop’ but they may vomit with their cough. Treatment has to happen in the first 3 weeks – treating after that just reduces the risk of transmitting it to others.”
Antibiotics can help treat whooping cough, as it’s a bacterial infection, but if it’s not treated or it doesn’t respond to treatment it will also drag on a long time: in fact it’s known as the ‘100-day cough’ in China.
Whooping cough is also very dangerous (and sometimes fatal) to babies to babies too little to be vaccinated, who can end up with very severe pneumonia.
The good news is there is something you can do to prevent it: the best protection is for pregnant women to be vaccinated in their third trimester, so that they make whooping cough antibodies and pass these on to their babies.
This means the babies have a much better chance of coping with whooping cough if they do catch it.
So it’s very important to keep your child away from small babies if they develop whooping cough, and if you’re pregnant – do please get vaccinated yourself.