Girl in white sweater coughs into elbow

When a cough may be more than just a cough

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As a person with any amount of life experience under your belt, you likely don’t need the term “cough” defined for you. You’ve probably experienced a recurring cough at least once in your life, if not countless times. Sometimes the cough goes away after a short time all by itself. Sometimes the cough is a symptom of an illness.

So, when should you worry about your child’s cough? What’s the difference between a “wet cough” and a “dry cough?”

Keith Hanson, MD, is a pediatric hospitalist at OSF HealthCare Children’s Hospital of Illinois in Peoria. His insights can help you identify the type of cough your child is experiencing, and what other symptoms to look for to help you know whether you should call your child’s pediatrician.

“A cough by itself is not very worrisome, really,” Dr. Hanson said. “But if it is accompanied by other symptoms of illness, it can help you identify when it’s time to call your child’s pediatrician.”

Wet vs. dry

You’ve likely seen or heard the terms “wet cough” and “dry cough” used to help diagnose an illness. These terms describe two types of coughs with different causes.

  • Wet cough: Coughing up mucus from the airway makes the cough sound “wet,” as mucus shifts in the airway.
  • Dry cough: Also known as a hacking cough, this cough has a consistent tone because it is free from the sound of mucus. It is caused by irritation and inflammation of the airway.

Assessing the situation

“If your child has a cough but is running around the room, they’re probably fine,” Dr. Hanson said. “But if they’re coughing and feeling miserable, that is concerning.”

So how do you know if you should contact a doctor? Dr. Hanson suggests going through these questions, and if you answer “yes” to any of them, contact a physician.

Any other COVID-19 symptoms?

COVID-19 symptoms can be very similar to those of a common cold, including a cough. Know the symptoms of COVID-19, and if your child exhibits any of them, call their physician’s office. Find COVID-19 information and resources to help you know how to respond to a possible COVID-19 infection.

Does the cough stay bad or get worse after a week?

Even a cough by itself with no other symptoms should be checked out by a physician if it lasts longer than a week. It could still be nothing serious, but this is a good point at which it makes sense to see a physician for peace of mind.

Is it a deep cough from the chest, bringing up thicker yellow or green mucus?

This is a sign of a possible bacterial infection like pneumonia. Contact a physician for an appointment to get it checked out promptly.

Is it a loud cough that sounds like a seal bark and accompanied by high-pitched breathing?

This could be croup, and the cough can often be accompanied by stridor, a high-pitched breathing sound from the upper airway. Croup is a viral infection that causes some narrowing of the airway at the level of the vocal cords. This usually clears up, but severe cases can require hospitalization, so contact your child’s pediatrician immediately.

It’s important to have a physician for yourself and your children, so you have someone you trust with any health concerns. If you don’t already have a primary care provider, you can find one that fits the needs of you and your family here.

Last Updated: March 23, 2021

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About Author: Ken Harris

Ken Harris is the proudest father and was a writing coordinator for the Marketing & Communications division of OSF HealthCare.

He has a bachelor's in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked as a daily newspaper reporter for four years before leaving the field and eventually finding his way to OSF HealthCare.

In his free time, Ken likes reading, fly fishing, hanging out with his dog and generally pestering his lovely, patient wife.

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Categories: Kids & Family, Lung & Respiratory Health