Kids and coughs: What parents need to know

Reviewed by Theresa H. Care Delivery Manager & Family Nurse Practitioner

Time saver 4 min read

As a parent, hearing your little one’s cough, cough, cough can be quite worrisome. That’s why it’s important to know that there are many reasons kids cough and, most of the time, coughing isn’t a serious symptom. In fact, coughing is an important and healthy part of the body’s natural immune system. But when your little one is hacking, you just want to know what’s wrong and how to make them feel better. Let’s take a look at some common cough causes and tips on ways to help quiet your child’s cough.

What’s behind your child’s cough?

Viruses, bacterial infections, asthma, allergies and COVID-19 all share coughing as a common symptom. So how can you know what’s causing your kiddo’s cough? Keep reading!

Respiratory viruses

In addition to a stuffed up or runny nose, sore throat and sneezing, a cough is a common symptom of viral upper respiratory infections (VURI) — like the common cold. Coughing is also a symptom of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which loves making the rounds in daycares and elementary schools during the fall and winter months.

When a cold or other respiratory virus settles into your child’s chest, their airways or bronchial tubes become inflamed. This can lead to a common condition known as bronchitis, and coughing — accompanied by thick and discolored mucus — is a telltale symptom. While a bronchitis-related cough can sound alarming, most cases of bronchitis are caused by a virus and resolve on their own — lasting anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.

Respiratory viral infections typically start with nasal congestion that progresses into a wet, productive cough and then develops into a dry cough that can last for up to 2 weeks. While it can be hard to stand by and hear your child coughing, remember that our immune systems are made to fight viral infections. Plus, there are many ways to help kids feel better while a virus runs its course.

Bacterial respiratory infections

In some cases, a viral infection may spread to the lower respiratory tract and turn into a bacterial infection like pneumonia. Respiratory bacterial infections like pneumonia are more serious and typically require antibiotics to treat. If your little one’s cold develops into a lingering deep cough that’s accompanied by a high fever, it’s important to see an in-person healthcare provider.


For kids with allergies, certain things like pet dander or pollen can spur the body to release histamines – similar to when fighting a cold. This causes airways to become inflamed and results in cold-like symptoms, including a cough. If you suspect your child has allergies, an allergy specialist can help determine what’s causing the reaction.


Asthma is another condition that inflames the airways and causes coughing, mild wheezing and intermittent shortness of breath. If you think your child may have asthma, you need to see a pediatrician or family practice provider who can provide a formal diagnosis and asthma management plan.


Fever, stuffy nose, coughing and shortness of breath are all COVID-19 symptoms. The good news is that at-home COVID-19 tests are widely available at pharmacies and healthcare clinics. If your little one has symptoms, test them as soon as possible. And, if they test positive, make sure to follow the most recent CDC guidance. Most COVID cases in kids are mild, and vaccination remains the best and most-effective way to protect against serious illness and complications.

Cough-quieting tips

Over-the-counter cold and cough medications aren’t recommended for kids under age six. And while cough drops may be okay for older children, they present a choking risk for younger kids. Thankfully, there are many effective home-based remedies that can help calm your child’s cough.

Tips to reduce coughing

  • Get steamy — Turn the water in your shower to hot and cuddle up with your child in the bathroom for a 20-minute soothing steam sauna
  • Stay cool — Run a cool-mist humidifier in your little one’s bedroom at night and make sure to clean it regularly
  • Open airways — Rub Vicks VapoRub on your child’s chest, especially at night when coughs tend to keep kids from getting much-needed rest
  • Drink up — Keep your child hydrated by making sure they drink lots of water and other electrolyte drinks
  • Sweeten the deal — Give your child (provided they’re over the age of one) a teaspoon of honey to soothe a sore chest and cough

When a cough is cause for concern

Sometimes a cough can signal a more serious secondary condition like a sinus infection, ear infection or pneumonia. It can also indicate croup or whooping cough. If you get wind of the following symptoms, it’s time for an in-person clinical visit or trip to the ER.

  • Shortness of breath or labored breathing
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • High or recurrent fevers (think 102°F or above)
  • Not eating or drinking as usual
  • Acting very lethargic
  • Abdominal pain, nausea or vomiting

Online treatment for coughs

Knowing what’s up when your child has a cough can be tricky. And the last thing you want is to make a needless trip into the clinic. That’s what makes online care such a great option for parents. It’s a fast, easy and safe way to get the care your little one needs — all without leaving the comfort of home.

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