child coughing in her bed

Coughing in Children: When to Be Worried

For an adult, a cough does not often tend to be extremely worrisome. But when it is your child, even a small cough can be frightening. What’s more, a slight cough can become a bad cough quickly. Here are a few indicators that your child’s cough really is something to be concerned about. 

Whooping Cough

Whooping cough is characterized by the “whoop” noise that tends to occur during inhalation. Whooping cough, or pertussis, is a dry cough that can leave even an adult struggling for breath. In infants, whooping cough can be fatal. It may seem like a typical cold at first, with a fever and allergy-like symptoms. After the first 1-2 weeks, however, its characteristic cough develops. If your child is vomiting, turning red or blue in the face when coughing, struggling to breathe, or periodically not breathing for a short time, get to the doctor for some antibiotics right away. 

Croup Cough

While whooping cough is dry, croup coughs tend to be wet. This means they are accompanied by mucus, phlegm, or other sputum. Croup is caused by a virus that inflames the vocal cords and windpipe, making it difficult to breathe. Also beginning much like a cold, a croup cough sounds much like a bark. It can get worse at night, and is harder on small children, who have smaller airways. According to the Mayo Clinic, only 5% of children who go to the ER for croup coughs need to be hospitalized. If your child’s cough is accompanied by high pitched and noisy breathing, a struggle to breathe, trouble swallowing, increased respiratory rate, anxiety, or a blueness to the hands or face, get to a doctor immediately. 


Asthma is a chronic respiratory condition characterized by swollen, mucous-filled airways that interfere with breathing. With appropriate treatment, many people lead full and healthy lives. Without treatment, however, asthma can be dangerous. If your child is experiencing a wet (accompanied by mucus) cough in tandem with difficulty breathing, chest pain, wheezing, or airway issues that interfere with sleep, he or she may have asthma. If your child does not already have an asthma diagnosis, talk to his pediatrician immediately. If he does, do the same, as he may need an adjustment to his meds. Make sure you know what to do in case of an asthma attack, as they can be life threatening.  

General Cough

A chronic cough in a child is rare, but can be indicative of an airway obstruction, asthma, or allergies. Generally, it’s a question of whether or not a short-term cough in a child is concerning. However, even if you are sure your child just has a little cold or flu, anyone with a cough that lasts longer than three weeks should take a trip to the doctor to get it checked out. Bronchitis or pneumonia can be a development of less dangerous infections. In children, however, it’s a good idea to go in earlier, as a cough that might not do much more than fatigue an adult can be extremely dangerous for children in some cases. 

Last Updated: December 01, 2016