A cough can cause significant discomfort to a baby. The baby may also have difficulty relaxing and sleeping. Numerous illnesses can cause cough as a primary symptom. Coughing is the result of the baby’s airway being affected or irritated. It may be due to viruses, bacteria, mucus buildup in the airway, environmental irritants, allergies, or other diseases of the lungs and airway. Knowing the cause and seriousness of the cough is very important because it can help determine what home remedies to follow and if the child requires medical attention. Home remedies can help provide relief to the baby but may not always be curative. The baby’s cough may also be due to other underlying conditions that require medical treatment; hence, it is advised to consult a pediatrician. Home remedies may be followed alongside medical treatment as well to help provide more relief to the baby. Besides home remedies and medical treatment, a child with a cough, with or without other symptoms, requires plenty of rest, fluids, and good nutrition to be able to feel comfortable and recover faster.
What causes cough in a baby?
Some common conditions that can cause cough in a baby include:
- Cold and flu: There are hundreds of viruses that can cause cold and flu in a baby. The baby can have a cough, nose block, nasal discharge, sneezing, fever, chills, body pain, and throat pain. Rest, fluids, home remedies, over-the-counter (OTC) medication (as per the label instructions), and/or prescription medication from a doctor may be required to help the baby feel better.
- Croup: Cough in croup sounds such as a barking seal, which is very distinct. The baby may also have, fever, nasal discharge, throat pain, loss of voice, stridor (high-pitched whistling sound while breathing). Mild croup may be treated at home and regular follow-up with the doctor. Severe croup requires medical treatment.
- Pneumonia: A common cold or other illness can progress to pneumonia (infection of the lungs). Cough is usually painful and associated with mucus production (productive cough). The baby may also have fever, fatigue, vomiting, or diarrhea. Treatment may involve prescription antibiotics, home remedies, rest, and fluids.
- Pertussis (whooping cough): This is a contagious respiratory tract infection that can be dangerous for babies and is preventable by vaccination. If the baby has a cough that sounds like a “whoop” and the cough is dry and harsh, it can become severe and come in fits. The child may have a fever and nasal discharge. The child usually needs medical treatment and/or hospitalization to recover. Home remedies may be followed alongside medical treatment.
- Asthma: Viruses are the most common trigger of asthma episodes in babies younger than 6 months. The cough is persistent, and the baby may also have wheezing, fatigue, the bluish coloring of the mouth, and difficult and exaggerated breathing (nostrils flaring, skin sucking between ribs, etc.). The child requires emergency medical attention.
- Allergies: Babies may be allergic to certain foods or environmental substances or seasonal allergies. The baby may have a cough and sneezing that is not associated with fever, throat pain, body pain, etc., unlike many other respiratory diseases. If allergies are suspected, the baby may need to be evaluated by the doctor for further testing.
- Reflux: Cough associated with gastric reflux is usually chronic and occurs due to the backward flow of the stomach contents and acid. The baby also frequently tries to sit up to feel more comfortable, may have weight loss, or be irritable after feeding. Some babies may grow out of reflux with time and home remedies, whereas others may need medical treatment.
Home remedies for cough in babies
Following are the home remedies for cough in babies:
- Fluids: The baby should be well hydrated to keep their mucus flowing, making it easy to cough up. If the baby is dehydrated, the mucus may dry up and be difficult to clear with coughing, and the baby may have a dry cough that causes discomfort and is more painful. A baby younger than 6 months can be breastfed or given their regular amount of formula more frequently than usual to remain hydrated. Babies older than 6 months may be given water, unsweetened juices, and other fluids such as milk.
- Saline drops: Saline drops are available over the counter (OTC). They help moisten the inner lining of the nose and secretions. They help clear the airway and reduce coughing by reducing postnasal drip (the mucus travels down the back of the nose and throat, irritating the throat, resulting in cough). Two to three saline drops per nostril may be used three to four times a day. The baby may not like the sensation of the drops or the salty taste or sneeze, but that is normal, and they do not need to be discontinued for these reasons.
- Using a humidifier: A humidifier moistens the air, which moistens the air the baby takes in, hence moistening the mucus and aiding clearance of the airway. Many of the commercial humidifiers in the market may not provide enough humidity to help the baby’s cough, and they are also difficult to clean. Therefore, an alternative way is to turn the bathroom into a steam room. It can be done by running hot water in the shower or filling the bathtub with hot water, with the bathroom door shut, and allowing the humidity to build up. The parent or caregiver may sit in the humidified bathroom for around 15 minutes while patting the baby’s chest and back with mild pressure (more pressure than what is applied while burping) to help loosen stubborn mucus.
- Propping the baby up: A baby’s cough may worsen at nighttime and while lying down. Older babes may be propped with extra pillows to help raise the baby’s head and improve breathing. This can also help reduce acid reflux.
When to seek emergency medical attention?
If the baby has a cough along with any of the following symptoms, it is recommended to visit the nearest emergency room (ER):
- Difficult or labored breathing
- shortness of breath
- Coughing blood
- Difficulty swallowing
- Difficulty opening the mouth completely
- Significantly enlarged and red tonsils, especially if it’s only one tonsil
- Cough in newborns within the first few weeks after birth
- Cough that lasts 8 weeks or longer
- Cough that’s worsening
- Night sweats
- Weight loss
- Rapid breathing
- Irritability and behavioral changes
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