Thousands of children are seen unnecessarily in the ER every year due to a cough. Why? Because coughing is confusing! There are so many illnesses with ‘cough’ listed as a symptom and a dry cough can linger for weeks after other symptoms have gone away (it is considered a persistent or chronic cough after three weeks). So it’s only natural that we are scratching our heads, wondering when to be worried. Let’s dive into this a bit and figure out when to be concerned and how to soothe ourselves and our loves with some home remedies for a cough.
What illnesses cause kids and teens to cough?
As stated above, there are many illnesses that cause our kids (or us) to cough:
- The common cold
- Influenza (Get your vaccines!)
- Pneumonia (Get your vaccines!)
- Whooping cough (Get your vaccines!)
- Postnasal drip
- GERD (Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease)
The biggest takeaway here is that coughs are hopping on board with everything else we may be suffering from. Coughing itself is actually not all bad – it’s our body’s way of protecting us, clearing irritants and secretions from our lungs. Grab your Kinsa thermometer and see if there’s a fever along with this cough. Even if there isn’t, you can still select current symptoms and the Kinsa app will guide you from there.
Coughing day after day, besides testing the patience of our loved ones, is uncomfortable. The biggest thing we see from this is a sore throat. It can also cause vomiting. This will scare the daylights out of you but don’t panic, this can be normal. Sometimes our kiddos have the lungs of a grown man but the gag reflex of a kitten, and they cough so hard they can vomit. And honestly, it’s less often from the force of the cough but from excess mucus that our body needs to get rid of.
Cough remedies for kids and teens:
- Fluids! Drink TONS of water. Often times, we cough because of a runny nose and it is draining in the back of the throat. The more we drink, the thinner the drainage becomes and it is easier to get it out! Water, tea, broth – any of these are great for hydration and comforting when sick!
- Saline rinses or flushes. Sometimes the mucus is so thick we need to thin it out with saline. Again, drink water to help thin it out as well!
- Cool-Mist Humidifier. This will help moisten the dry air and can help decrease coughing from a dry, scratchy throat. The warm-mist humidifiers increase the risk of a burn, either from the hot steam or from a water spill. It is not proven to be more effective than the cool-mist humidifiers because the heat dissipates too quickly to actually make a difference by the time you are breathing it in. There’s also no reason to add anything to the water, such as essential oils.
- Cold or frozen food/drinks. A good popsicle always soothes a sore throat and lifts a sick kid’s spirit. Bonus? It also helps with hydration!
- Salt water gargle. Typically our kids will cooperate with this by the time they are 6 years or older. This can help soothe a sore throat from coughing.
- Hard candy has been shown to be just as effective as a cough drop. Choking hazard here so use your best judgement!
- Spoonful of honey. This can soothe a sore throat and loosen a cough.
- Elevate the head of the bed. Ever notice worse coughing at night? We’ve tucked in for the night and suddenly it’s like a river down the back of our throats and we can’t stop coughing. Clean out a child’s (or your own) nose the best you can and prop up the head.
- Tylenol or Ibuprofen. These are to help the discomfort, not to cure the cough. It’s really not needed unless you feel your child is in pain from the cough or their temperature is >102 degrees.
- Cough suppressants or expectorants should be avoided for kids <6 years old; consider avoiding for kids under 12 years of age as well. It is not proven to be effective and the side effects for children are not worth the risk. It’s efficacy is even questionable in adults.
- Some might feel the need to give Benadryl to help suppress the cough and get some sleep but this is also not recommended. Let our bodies cough out the illness and move on!
When to worry about a cough?
- If the cough is lingering around longer than 3 weeks, make an appointment with your doctor to see if something else is going on.
- Shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, difficulty swallowing. Don’t waste time making an appointment here – head to the ER.
- Wheezing cough. If the wheezing is severe and leads to difficulty breathing, head to the ER. If during office hours, you hear a slight wheeze but you or your child is otherwise uncompromised, it is okay to call your doctor and go from there.
- Coughing up phlegm or mucus (especially yellow or green mucus), or pink/bloody phlegm. This is usually a sign that an infection is brewing and time to make an appointment with the doc.
- Vomiting blood. Vomiting with coughing can be normal. If you see blood, we’ve crossed the line into ‘abnormal’ and it warrants a trip to the ER.
- Fever >102. Always ask your doctor for specific temperature guidelines, they can vary slightly depending on their preferences.
- Signs of dehydration. Dry mouth, dry skin, decreased urination. Do your best to keep hydrated on your own, but if it doesn’t seem to be working, see your doctor.
- Nothing is working. If you’re doing everything you can at home to make your babe more comfortable but it isn’t working – or they seem to be getting worse – call the pediatrician.
At the end of the day, follow your gut. You are ALWAYS the expert on yourself and your own child and you are the advocate! Coughing is an aggravating symptom to deal with day after day, so hang in there, Mama. Do your part to increase comfort where you can and slowly but surely, things should improve. And as you battle this illness, remind everyone to wash their hands! Everyone in the family! You can’t wash too much. Also, direct the cough and sneeze into a kleenex or into a sleeve. And grab some disinfectant to get those germs out of the house so you can move on before the next thing strikes!
Blake Wageman, RN, BSN has over 11 years of nursing under her belt, primarily focused on NICU babies and, just as importantly, their worried parents. She also has two daughters who have kept her on her toes from birth all the way into their tween years. Blake’s passion is giving parents not only the information, but also the comfort and confidence they need to make good decisions for their kiddos.
This content is intended for informational purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment from an appropriately qualified and licensed physician or other healthcare provider.