What kind of cough does my child have?

Is it a chesty cough or a dry cough? Why is it so much worse at night? And when will it stop? These questions and more answered by Dr Toni Hazell

Sick child in bed

Sooner or later, all children get a cough…and they’re off! On average, preschool kids get between 9 and a whopping 12 viruses (most of which are coughs and colds) between September and March every year – and it doesn’t even stop there.


“My 4 year old daughter cannot stop coughing and can’t shake this cold off – it goes for a week and then comes back,” says VictoriaCakey in our forum.

So what do you need to know, and how can you make your child (and you!) a bit more comfortable?

What is a cough and what’s causing it?

The actual coughing action is because your child’s throat is irritated. Most probably that’s because of an infection, usually a virus (which means it won’t respond to antibiotics). Sometimes it is caused by bacteria, or a viral cough then develops a bacterial infection on top.

It could be something more serious, like asthma or croup but unless there’s another worrying symptom like a high temperature or a rash, there’s usually not much point in seeing the doctor (though of course never feel bad doing so if you are at all worried).

What’s the difference between a ‘tickly’ cough and a ‘chesty’ cough?

Technically, a chesty’ cough is known as a ‘productive’ cough, because it’s producing thick mucus (phlegm). The throat’s trying to clear itself of that mucus, and bringing it up to clear the airways.

A ‘tickly’ cough is a ‘dry’ cough, where no phlegm is being coughed up.

A lot of people worry about spotting the difference between the 2, but in the first couple of weeks or so just keep an eye on whether a child with a chesty cough is bringing up odd-coloured mucus.

Why does my child cough more at night and is there anything I can do to stop it?

”My [daughter] (2yrs) has a dry cough. It doesn’t seem to affect her during the day, but it does when she’s asleep,” says Joey0810 in our forum, and lots of parents find that it’s the same for their own children (and for them too!)

“There can be various reasons for a night cough,” explains London GP Dr Toni Hazell. A cough your child has in the day can seem worse at night – and often it’s linked to a cold.

Six year old girl coughs diseased lying in bed with a thermometer on the mouse

“If they have a blocked or runny nose, then mucus may go down into their throat and make them cough.”

And like loulou1310, lots of us are at our wits’ end about anything we might be able to do to help. “Is there anything I can do to help him? He seems to be coughing during his sleeps and disturbing himself and coughing more so when he first wakes up.”

Changing position can help with coughing at night. Lying flat is a big part of the problem, because everything ‘pools’ in the back of the throat and feels very uncomfortable on the chest.

As many adults have found, propping the head and neck up can help with this. But don’t do that for babies, Dr Toni warns. “Small babies shouldn’t have anything in their cot to

prop them up on. “Instead, you could try propping the end of the cot up on some books.

There can be other reasons why a cough gets worse at night, Dr Toni adds. “Reflux is worse when you’re lying flat so a night cough could suggest that.

“And asthma’s often worse at night, and can sound like a cough. But of course, it may be just a normal cold.”

Should I try to work out if something is setting off my child’s cough?

To be honest, says Dr Toni, that’s only really something to consider if you think it might be asthma.

“Triggers for asthma can include pollen during the hay fever season, cold air and allergies to pets or house-dust mites.”

blond little girl with handkerchief

If you think pollen is the culprit, keep the windows shut; if it’s house dust or pet hair, a very thorough hoovering may help.

How long will my child’s cough last?

Unfortunately this is a real ‘piece of string’ question because they can linger on for a good month. And of course you should keep an eye on it, but if it’s just the usual “hack-hack-hack” it’s either the same one lingering on, or another one taking over before you’ve even noticed.

“Generally we don’t consider a cough to be chronic until it has been there for 6 weeks,” says Dr Toni. So while it’s often uncomfortable and unpleasant, at least it’s not too worrying.

How can I cut down everyone’s risk of getting a cough?

When bugs are going round and round, it makes sense to try and stop them. Some common-sense hygiene will help prevent you passing anything on to your child and your child passing on anything they’ve got to other children.

“You don’t need to go crazy with hand sanitiser but teach your child to cover their mouth when they cough, to use a tissue if they sneeze and to wash their hands regularly, especially when they’re ill,” advises Dr Toni.

The NHS rules of ‘catch it, bin it, kill it’ are really useful for everyone to learn. Instead of getting your child to cover her mouth with their hands (and then putting her hands on anything else) try to get her to cough into a tissue and put it in the bin.

And a good thorough hand wash with soap and warm water is literally one of the best ways in the world to stop passing an infection on.

Can my child go to school with a cough?

This is a big worry for lots of us. If you work, do you need to take a day off to look after your little one? And if you’re not, are you being too harsh by not giving your child a duvet day?

It’s very much up to your own common sense, says Dr Toni. “If we all kept our kids off school with every cough they would never be there.

“I wouldn’t send a child to school with a high temperature or if they were too tired to concentrate but otherwise coughs and colds are really part of a childhood winter.”

Is it normal for my child to lose their appetite with a cough?

Yes! Children can eat like horses one day and sparrows the next, and when they’re off-colour they’re frequently off their food too.

As long as you’re getting fluids into them (a good rule of thumb is to check that when they pee their urine is a pale strawy yellow, which shows it’s sufficiently diluted) this isn’t anything to worry about.

If it’s partly that it hurts to eat because of a sore throat, Dr Hazell suggests something soft like yogurt.

But, she points, out, “With the increasing rates of childhood obesity it’s really important that kids learn to eat to their appetite rather than having to finish their plate.” So go with it, and just expect a surge in second helpings once they’re better.

Pics: Getty


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