Your little baby is always surprising you with his or her cute expressions and innocent acts. But at times, babies cause a lot of worry to their parents, such as when they develop a cough. A cough is sometimes merely a natural response of the airway system of the body to rid itself of irritants. It functions to clear the respiratory path of secretions or any other particle causing difficulty in maintaining an open airway. However, a cough is also the most common symptom of a respiratory or airway disorder. So if your baby develops a cough, it should not be ignored.
What to note when your baby coughs
A cough in your baby may take different forms. The nature of the cough along with its associated problems helps to distinguish between the different possible causes of cough in a baby. Try to keep in mind the circumstances surrounding the cough when you notice your child coughing.
- Did your baby’s cough begin as a cough alone or were there other accompanying features such as a blocked or runny nose or fever?
- Is the cough accompanied by any peculiar sound such a barking sound, noisy rush of air or ‘whooping’ sound?
- How long does the cough last?
- Is the cough seasonal?
- Is the cough dry or wet? A dry cough means a cough without phlegm or mucus formation. A wet cough, conversely, is seen in conjunction with phlegm and mucus.
- If the cough is wet, note the color of the phlegm or mucus. Is it green, yellow or blood streaked?
- Is your child exposed to pollutants such as smoke or dust in your home or surroundings?
- When does the cough worsen? During the day or at night?
- Does your baby’s cough interfere with sleeping or feeding schedules?
Once you have noted the characteristics of your baby’s cough, you can try to see if it fits into any of the following categories.
5 Ways to Interpreting Your Baby’s Cough
1. Coughs due to viral infections, flu or common cold
This is often the most common reason for a baby to cough. A baby’s immune system is in the process of developing and is susceptible to infections. This type of cough is usually of the dry type due to swelling of the baby’s throat and upper airway. It may be accompanied by other features of a cold such as a runny nose, irritability or a slight fever. The cough might be painful to your baby and cause irritability in the baby. This type of cough eases away on its own as the cold or flu subsides. A viral infection generally runs its own course. You can ensure your baby’s comfort by soothing him/her with honey drops, saline nose drops and ensuring adequate rest and feeding. In some cases, a wet cough might develop as the cold progresses. However, if the symptoms of common cold or flu persists for longer than 5-7 days, visit your pediatrician since it may be progressing towards pneumonia.
2. Pertussis or whooping cough
A more serious type of cough is one which is accompanied by a ‘whooping’ sound. Here, you will notice that your baby has a continuous bout of coughing and then inhales with a characteristic loud ‘whoop’ sound. Pertussis is caused due to a bacterial infection of the windpipe and airways. It is accompanied by symptoms of a cold, such as a runny nose, fever and sneezing. It is less common in babies nowadays because of vaccination provided at an early age against it (DTP vaccine). The cough seen in Pertussis is very dry and severe and exerts a lot of stress on the baby’s body. This type of cough must be looked at by your pediatrician immediately.
3. Asthmatic cough/ wheeze
Asthma is caused due to long term irritation of the airway. This may result in a chronic, dry cough which is accompanied by a whistling sound called wheeze. Your baby may also show signs of tiredness, difficulty breathing and worsening of the cough at night. Asthmatic cough may worsen due to possible irritants such as dust, smoke, pollen or animal hair so due precautions should be taken to avoid such allergens. Asthma is not an infectious condition but requires treatment for the comfort and ease of breathing for your baby.
4. Cough due to acid reflux or Gastro Esophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
Normally, the food we eat moves down the esophagus or food pipe into the stomach and stays inside the stomach. In some cases, the acidic contents of the stomach move back up into the food pipe or esophagus. This is called acid reflux or Gastro Esophageal Reflux Disease (GERD). Infants are more prone to this problem because they have a weak closing apparatus of the stomach which results in the stomach contents re-entering the food pipe.
This acid reflux or backing up of stomach contents can result in a cough in your baby. This may be accompanied by other signs such as
- Forceful spitting
- Recurrent ear or nose infections, and/or
- Refusal to feed.
If you note any of these signs in your baby, you need to visit your pediatrician who might suggest remedies for the problem, natural or medicine based.
5. Croup cough
Croup is a viral infection of the airway, the wind pipe and voice box in particular. The characteristic features to interpreting this type of cough are:
- This type of cough due to croup has a distinctive sound – a harsh, barking sound.
- The cough worsens at night
- Cough is accompanied by a runny nose and/or fever.
- Baby has difficulty in breathing
- A whistling sound may occur when the baby breathes in (called stridor)
- Poor ffeding and/or sleeping
If your child shows these signs, it could be due to croup infection and a visit to the pediatrician is called for.
Timely diagnosis of your baby’s cough can save both you and your precious little one a lot of trouble and discomfort. Breathing comfortably without airway problems is crucial to your baby’s good health so seek appropriate help at the slightest sign of a disturbing cough.