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Life is stressful when your little one is sick with a cough. Aside from being uncomfortable, your baby may have trouble relaxing and getting the rest they need to feel better.

A number of illnesses cause a cough as a primary symptom, and knowing the cause may help you determine what home remedy will work best.

Here’s how to identify different types of coughs, when you should go to the doctor, and what you can do to help your baby feel better — right now.

Related: What you should know about colds in newborn babies

No matter the cause of your baby’s cough, there are some sure warning signs that you need medical help. If your child is coughing and has any of the following symptoms, consider heading to your local emergency room (ER).

  • troubled or labored breathing
  • shortness of breath
  • a fever higher than 100.4°F (38°C) (children under 3 months) or higher than 102.2°F (39°C) (children over 3 months)
  • blood when coughing
  • trouble swallowing
  • difficulty opening their mouth the whole way
  • significant tonsil swelling on just one side

Other symptoms to note:

  • any cough in newborns within the first couple of weeks
  • a cough that lasts 8 weeks or longer
  • a cough that worsens with time, especially after 3 weeks
  • a cough with night sweats or weight loss
  • any cough — wet or dry — with wheezing or rapid breathing

Even if your baby doesn’t have severe signs but is acting differently than normal, it might be a good idea to at least call your pediatrician. You know your child best. Your doctor can help guide you, whether that be to take your baby to the ER or go in for an office visit.

Related: Parents advised not to give decongestants to young children

Even if your child’s symptoms aren’t serious, it can be scary waking up in the middle of the night to hear your baby hacking away. Knowing a few home remedies can give you some ideas of things to try so you don’t feel as helpless.

Consider making a kit containing certain items, such as saline and a bulb syringe, so they’re within easy reach when you need them.

Keeping your baby hydrated is key to keeping their mucus flowing and easy to cough up. If your baby’s dehydrated, their snot and other secretions may dry up and be difficult to clear away with coughing.

This means breastfeeding or offering their regular amount of formula as frequently as your child needs. Experts say extra fluids aren’t necessary, but they recommend keeping up with the normal amounts.

Stick with breast milk and formula for younger babies. Fluids may include water and unsweetened juices for older babies.

Another way to moisten secretions is to use over-the-counter (OTC) saline drops in your baby’s nose. What does your baby’s nose have to do with coughing? With cold and flu — quite a lot.

The mucus in your child’s nose can travel down the back of their nose and throat to cause postnasal drip. This irritates the throat and produces a wet, barky cough and rattling noise in the upper airway (not chest). You may especially notice this cough after your baby wakes up.

Use two to three saline drops per nostril a few times throughout the day. Your baby may not love the sensation of the drops going into their nose, or they may sneeze. That’s OK.

You can also try sucking the mucus out of your baby’s nose before it has a chance to reach and irritate their throat and airway.

After using saline drops, take a bulb syringe and squeeze it to push the air out. While still pressing it, insert it one-quarter to one-half of an inch into your baby’s nostril, being sure to point toward the back/side of their nose.

Release the pressure to allow the syringe to suck the mucus out, and remove it for cleaning before repeating on the other side. Be sure to clean it again before storing it. Repeat as necessary throughout the day, but keep in mind you may irritate your baby’s nostrils if you do it too frequently.

Moistening the air your child breathes is another way to keep things flowing. Of course, you can purchase a humidifier to add moisture to your baby’s nursery. Yet, some doctors say these devices may not provide enough humidity to help and are difficult to clean, and therefore, keep safe.

One possible alternative is to treat your bathroom like a steam room. You can run hot water in the shower, close the bathroom door, and let the humidity build. Just 10–15 minutes should do the trick.

You might also consider patting your baby’s chest and back to help loosen particularly stubborn mucus. Apply firm pressure that’s a bit harder than when you burp them.

For babies 12 months or older, you might try giving them a small amount of honey before bedtime or naps. The honey will coat your little one’s throat to relieve soreness. One study revealed that honey may be as effective as the OTC cough suppressant dextromethorphan.

Serve your child one-half to one teaspoon of honey as needed. However, know that honey isn’t appropriate for younger babies due to the risk of botulism, which is a rare form of food poisoning.

You may notice that your baby coughs the most at nighttime. Some experts suggest propping older babies with extra pillows to help raise their head and improve breathing.

Warning

Do not use pillows or other positioners for babies under 12 months. Instead, consult your pediatrician to see whether propping the head of your baby’s crib is a possibility to help them sleep.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission warns against the use of sleep aids — car seats, bouncers, other inclined products — that position younger babies at an incline greater than 10 degrees. This can increase the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

Healthline

If you’re worried about the cough and your baby’s breathing, consider sleeping in the same room with your child so you can help them as needed.

Try ridding your home of any irritants that might trigger asthma or allergies. Offenders might include things like tobacco smoke, dust, mold, and anything else that allergy testing reveals is a trigger for your baby.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also says you should avoid being outdoors on days with poor air quality.

Things that can help keep your indoor air irritant-free:

  • not smoking around your baby or indoors (Plus, smoke can linger on fabrics like clothing, so quitting altogether is best.)
  • vacuuming carpets using a vacuum with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter
  • using a room air purifier that has a HEPA filter
  • keeping the humidity level of your home between 40 and 50 percent
  • keeping pets out of sleeping areas
  • using allergen-proof mattress covers and pillow covers

Coughing is the result of your baby’s airway being irritated or otherwise affected in some way. It may be caused by excess mucus buildup related to a viral illness or environmental irritants like pollen or smoke. You can look at your child’s other symptoms to help narrow down the cause.

Cold and flu

There are over 200 different cold viruses that your baby may come into contact with. They cause stuffy noses, sneezing, fever, and — yes — cough. Treatment involves keeping your baby comfortable and using OTC medications to address fever and pain.

Signs of flu in babies include:

  • fever
  • chills
  • body aches and headache
  • sore throat
  • stuffy nose
  • dry cough

Your child may also have an upset stomach with vomiting or diarrhea. Your little one’s doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication if you catch the illness early. Otherwise, rest, fluids, OTC fever reducers, and time should do the trick.

COVID-19

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, may likewise lead to cold-like symptoms in babies. If you’ve been exposed to a person who has a SARS-CoV-2 infection, contact your doctor for further instructions about treatment and testing. Babies under age 1 may be at higher risk of developing complications from the virus.

Healthline

Croup

The sound of a croup cough is unmistakable. You may think there’s a seal barking in your baby’s crib.

While other symptoms vary, your baby may have:

  • a runny nose
  • laryngitis (loss of voice)
  • a fever
  • stridor (a high-pitched whistling sound when breathing)

Mild croup can often be treated at home. Severe croup may be addressed with breathing treatments or steroids.

Pneumonia

A cold, flu, or other illness can progress into pneumonia — or your baby can catch it from another child or adult who’s inflected with certain types. The cough is productive, meaning it produces mucus, and can be painful.

Your baby may also have a fever, fatigue, and vomiting or diarrhea. Treatment may involve antibiotics, extra fluids, and rest.

Whooping cough

Along with a low grade fever and runny nose, babies develop a mild cough with pertussis (whooping cough). In the second stage of the illness, the cough can become severe and come in fits. The cough sounds dry and harsh and may end with a characteristic “whoop” sound.

Your child may need antibiotics and/or hospitalization to recover.

Asthma

Viruses are the most common trigger of asthma episodes in babies 6 months old and younger. The cough is persistent and may be accompanied by wheezing and exaggerated breathing (nostrils flaring, skin sucking between ribs, etc.).

Other signs include:

  • rapid breathing
  • trouble sucking/eating
  • exhaustion
  • pale/blue coloring

Treatment involves specific asthma medications.

Allergies

Babies can also have allergies to certain foods or substances or even seasonal allergies. Symptoms differ from those associated with colds and the flu in that they’re triggered by exposure to an allergen.

A cough can be an allergy symptom, but it isn’t as common of a symptom as it is with colds. The main difference is that allergies don’t cause a fever, aches, and pains, and they rarely cause a sore throat. If you suspect allergies, you may be referred to a specialist for further testing.

Reflux

Is your baby spitting up frequently, losing weight, or grumpy during or after feedings? It may be reflux.

Cough with reflux is usually chronic in nature due to the consistent backward flow of stomach contents and acid. Some babies grow out of reflux with time. Others may need medication or other treatments to get better.

Babies get up to eight colds per year, on average. After a while, you’ll be a pro at determining what helps your child when they’re feeling sick and stuffy.

If you’re concerned about your baby’s cough, make an appointment with your pediatrician for a proper diagnosis. Once you know the cause, you can figure out which home remedies may help your little one feel better and address any other medical issues that need professional attention.