What You Should Know About Croup in Adults

Medically reviewed by Elaine K. Luo, MD on October 12, 2017Written by Julie Marks

Overview

Croup is an infection that affects your breathing and causes a distinct “barking” cough. It usually impacts young kids, but in rare cases, adults can develop croup too.

Researchers don’t know how common croup is in adults. A study published in 2017 reported on what the authors described as the 15th adult croup case documented in literature.

Read on to learn more about what causes croup and how doctors treat it.

Symptoms

Symptoms of croup may include:

  • a loud, barking cough that gets worse at night
  • labored, noisy, or “whistling” breathing
  • high fever
  • hoarse voice
  • agitation
  • fatigue

These symptoms last about three to five days.

The most telltale signs of croup are a cough that sounds like a barking seal and a high-pitched, whistling sound when you take a breath. See your doctor if you have these signature signs of the illness.

Symptoms are usually worse in adults than in children. A 2000 study looked at 11 cases of adult croup and compared them to 43 cases of child croup. Researchers found upper respiratory tract symptoms and noisy breathing were more common in adults.

Causes

Croup is usually caused by a contagious virus, such as a parainfluenza virus. These viruses can spread if you breathe in air droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The droplets can also survive on surfaces, so you can become infected if you touch an object and then touch your eyes, nose, or mouth.

When a virus attacks your body, it can produce swelling around your vocal cords, windpipe, and bronchial tubes. This swelling causes symptoms of croup.

Adults may catch the contagious virus, but they have larger airways, so they’re unlikely to develop croup. Kids, because of their smaller breathing passages, are more apt to feel the effects of the swelling and inflammation.

Croup in adults can also be caused by:

  • other viruses
  • a bacterial infection, such as a staph infection
  • a fungal infection

Diagnosis

Your doctor can diagnose croup by listening to your breathing with a stethoscope and examining your throat. Sometimes, a chest X-ray is performed to confirm that it’s croup and not something else.

It’s important to get a diagnosis early on so you can begin treatment before your condition becomes severe. See your doctor if you suspect croup.

Treatment

Adults with croup may need more aggressive treatment than children.

Your doctor might prescribe a steroid, such as dexamethasone (DexPak) or epinephrine (nebulized — that is, in the form of a mist) to lessen swelling in your airways.

You might need to spend time in the hospital if your condition is severe. Studies show adults with croup typically stay in the hospital longer than children with croup.

Sometimes doctors will need to place a breathing tube in your windpipe to help you breathe.

Most kids start feeling better within three to five days, but adults might need more time to recover.

Home remedies

Some home remedies that may help speed up your recovery include the following:

  • Use a humidifier. This device can help moisten the air, which could make breathing easier.
  • Drink lots of fluids. Staying hydrated is important when you have croup.
  • Rest. Getting enough sleep can help your body fight off the virus.
  • Stay in an upright position. Sitting upright can help your symptoms. Propping extra pillows under your head may while in bed may also help you to sleep better.
  • Use over-the-counter pain relievers. Acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil), or other pain medicines can lower your fever and reduce your pain.

Prevention

To prevent croup, use the same measures you would use to avoid colds and the flu.

  • Wash your hands often to avoid airborne droplets that can cause viruses to spread. It’s especially important to wash your hands before you eat or touch your eyes.
  • Avoid people who are sick, if possible.
  • Don’t share drinks or food with someone else who has croup.

Outlook

Croup in adults is unusual, but possible. If you develop croup as an adult, you might experience worse symptoms and need more aggressive treatment. Be sure to see your doctor if you think you might have this infection because catching it early could lead to a better outcome.

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