Coughing in Children

For children 12 and over, see chart 16

Coughing is a normal reaction to irritation in the throat or lungs. Most coughs are caused by minor infections of the nose and/or throat, but the sudden onset of coughing may be caused by choking. Coughing is unusual in babies under 6 months old and may indicate a serious lung infection.

  • How long has your child been coughing?

    • Started suddenly a few minutes ago

      Is it possible that your child is choking on food or a small object?

      • Possible
        • Possible cause An inhaled foreign body may be the cause of the coughing.

          Medical help EMERGENCY! Dial 999/112 and ask for an ambulance.

      • Unlikely

        How old is your child?

        • 6 months or over

          Is your child’s breathing abnormally rapid (see Checking your child’s breathing rate) or noisy?

          • Abnormally rapid
          • Noisy
          • Neither

            Does the cough have either of these characteristics?

            • Comes in fits ending with a whoop
              • Possible cause Pertussis may be the cause of your child’s cough.

                Medical help See your doctor within 24 hours.

            • Is followed by vomiting
              • Possible cause Pertussis may be the cause of your child’s cough.

                Medical help See your doctor within 24 hours.

            • Neither

              Does your child have a runny nose?

              • Most of the time or very often
                • Possible cause Your child may have an allergy (see Allergic rhinitis) or enlarged adenoids, both of which may cause these symptoms.

                  Medical help Make an appointment to see your doctor.

              • Has developed a runny nose within the past few days

                Does your child have a fever – a temperature of 38°C (100.4°F) or above?

                • Fever
                  • Possible cause A viral illness, such as a common cold or influenza, is the most likely cause of your child’s symptoms.

                    Self-help See the advice for bringing down a fever. Consult your doctor if symptoms get worse, if your child is no better in 2 days, or if other symptoms develop.

                • No fever
                  • Possible cause Your child probably has a common cold.

                    Self-help Steam inhalation may help relieve the cough. Consult your doctor if symptoms get worse, if your child is no better in 2 days, or if other symptoms develop.

              • No runny nose

                When does the coughing occur?

                • Mainly at night
                  • Possible cause There is a possibility that your child has asthma (see Asthma in children).

                    Medical help See your doctor within 24 hours.

                • After exercise
                  • Possible cause There is a possibility that your child has asthma (see Asthma in children).

                    Medical help See your doctor within 24 hours.

                • When out in the cold
                  • Possible cause There is a possibility that your child has asthma (see Asthma in children).

                    Medical help See your doctor within 24 hours.

                • None of the above

                  Are there smokers in the home or might your child have been smoking?

                  • Smokers in the home
                    • Possible cause Your child’s cough may be a response to being in a smoky atmosphere or to smoking.

                      Self-help Make sure that no one smokes in the house and avoid taking your child into a smoky atmosphere. If you suspect your child may be smoking, encourage him or her to stop.

                  • Child might smoke
                    • Possible cause Your child’s cough may be a response to being in a smoky atmosphere or to smoking.

                      Self-help Make sure that no one smokes in the house and avoid taking your child into a smoky atmosphere. If you suspect your child may be smoking, encourage him or her to stop.

                  • Neither
                    • If you cannot identify a possible cause for your child’s cough from this chart, see your doctor within 24 hours.

        • Under 6 months
          • Possible cause There is a possibility that your baby may be suffering from a serious lung infection (see Bronchiolitis).

            Medical help URGENT! Phone your doctor immediately!

    • Started more than a few minutes ago

      How old is your child?

      • 6 months or over

        Is your child’s breathing abnormally rapid (see Checking your child’s breathing rate) or noisy?

        • Abnormally rapid
        • Noisy
        • Neither

          Does the cough have either of these characteristics?

          • Comes in fits ending with a whoop
            • Possible cause Pertussis may be the cause of your child’s cough.

              Medical help See your doctor within 24 hours.

          • Is followed by vomiting
            • Possible cause Pertussis may be the cause of your child’s cough.

              Medical help See your doctor within 24 hours.

          • Neither

            Does your child have a runny nose?

            • Most of the time or very often
              • Possible cause Your child may have an allergy (see Allergic rhinitis) or enlarged adenoids, both of which may cause these symptoms.

                Medical help Make an appointment to see your doctor.

            • Has developed a runny nose within the past few days

              Does your child have a fever – a temperature of 38°C (100.4°F) or above?

              • Fever
                • Possible cause A viral illness, such as a common cold or influenza, is the most likely cause of your child’s symptoms.

                  Self-help See the advice for bringing down a fever. Consult your doctor if symptoms get worse, if your child is no better in 2 days, or if other symptoms develop.

              • No fever
                • Possible cause Your child probably has a common cold.

                  Self-help Steam inhalation may help relieve the cough. Consult your doctor if symptoms get worse, if your child is no better in 2 days, or if other symptoms develop.

            • No runny nose

              When does the coughing occur?

              • Mainly at night
                • Possible cause There is a possibility that your child has asthma (see Asthma in children).

                  Medical help See your doctor within 24 hours.

              • After exercise
                • Possible cause There is a possibility that your child has asthma (see Asthma in children).

                  Medical help See your doctor within 24 hours.

              • When out in the cold
                • Possible cause There is a possibility that your child has asthma (see Asthma in children).

                  Medical help See your doctor within 24 hours.

              • None of the above

                Are there smokers in the home or might your child have been smoking?

                • Smokers in the home
                  • Possible cause Your child’s cough may be a response to being in a smoky atmosphere or to smoking.

                    Self-help Make sure that no one smokes in the house and avoid taking your child into a smoky atmosphere. If you suspect your child may be smoking, encourage him or her to stop.

                • Child might smoke
                  • Possible cause Your child’s cough may be a response to being in a smoky atmosphere or to smoking.

                    Self-help Make sure that no one smokes in the house and avoid taking your child into a smoky atmosphere. If you suspect your child may be smoking, encourage him or her to stop.

                • Neither
                  • If you cannot identify a possible cause for your child’s cough from this chart, see your doctor within 24 hours.

      • Under 6 months
        • Possible cause There is a possibility that your baby may be suffering from a serious lung infection (see Bronchiolitis).

          Medical help URGENT! Phone your doctor immediately!

Dial 999/112 and ask for an ambulance if your child is coughing and has any of the following symptoms:

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

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