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Coughing is an important part of your body’s defense system, helping to rid your body of potentially harmful microbes and irritants.
Coughs come in many types, including wet and dry. Wet coughs produce, or sound like they are producing, phlegm, or mucus. Dry coughs, on the other hand, don’t.
Many things can cause a dry cough in kids, from a simple cold to an inhaled object.
A variety of viral respiratory infections can lead to coughing due to irritation and inflammation in the airways.
Some infections that are usually caused by viruses and can lead to a dry cough in kids include:
Depending on the infection, the cough may sound hoarse or have more of a wheezing sound. It may also get worse at night due to mucus from the nose trickling down the throat, causing irritation.
Other signs that your child may have a viral infection include:
- runny or stuffy nose
- body aches and pains
Unlike bacterial infections, viral infections don’t respond to antibiotic treatment. Instead, treatment relies on getting plenty of rest and fluids.
If your child is over 6 months old, they can be given ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) to help relieve fevers and body aches. Avoid giving them aspirin, which can cause Reyes syndrome in children.
Sometimes, a cough can linger for several weeks after a viral respiratory infection. This is called post-viral cough. It likely occurs due to lingering inflammation or sensitivity in the airways following infection.
There’s no specific treatment for post-viral cough, but symptoms typically go away on their own after a few weeks.
Whooping cough, also called pertussis, is a contagious bacterial infection of the airways. The cough occurs due to toxins produced by the bacteria, which damage the airways and cause them to swell.
Kids with pertussis will often have long coughing spells that make it hard to breathe. After they’ve finished coughing, they’ll often try to breathe in deeply, which makes a “whooping” noise.
Other symptoms that you may notice include:
- low-grade fever
- runny nose
Whooping cough can be serious, especially for infants. Prompt treatment which is a course of antibiotics, is important.
Whooping cough can be prevented through vaccination.
Asthma is a chronic disease that involves the inflammation and narrowing of the airways. This can make it hard to breathe.
Symptoms of asthma can be triggered by a variety of things, including environmental irritants, respiratory illness, or exercise.
Frequent spells of coughing, which can be dry or productive, are one of the signs of asthma in kids. Coughing may be more frequent at night or while playing. You may also hear a whistling noise when your child breathes in or out.
In some cases, chronic coughing may be the only symptom of asthma. This is called cough-variant asthma.
Other symptoms of asthma that you may see can include:
- difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- rapid breathing
- low energy levels
- chest tightness or pain
If your child is diagnosed with asthma, their healthcare provider will work with you to develop something called an asthma action plan. An asthma action plan will include information on your child’s asthma triggers as well how and when they should take their medication.
Asthma medication helps to lower the inflammation in your child’s airways. Your child will likely have two types of medication — one for long-term asthma control and one for quick relief of asthma symptoms.
It’s not unusual for young children to put things in their mouths, including buttons, beads, and other small objects. If they inhale too deeply, the object may get lodged in their airway. Or, they might swallow the object, causing it to get stuck in their esophagus.
If your child has swallowed or inhaled something, their cough could be a sign that their body is trying to dislodge the object. You may also hear wheezing or choking noises.
If you believe your child has inhaled or swallowed a foreign object, seek immediate treatment.
A bronchoscopy may be needed to find and remove the object.
After the object is removed, you’ll want to monitor them for signs of infection or further irritation.
Allergies happen when the immune system mistakes something harmless for a foreign invader and overreacts.
A substance called histamine is released during an allergic reaction and can cause respiratory symptoms.
Hoarse, dry coughing can be a symptom of allergies, particularly if it begins at a certain time of year or occurs after exposure to something specific.
Other allergy symptoms include:
- itchy, watery eyes
- runny nose
The best way to manage allergies is to avoid things that trigger your child’s symptoms. You can also try over-the-counter (OTC) allergy remedies, but make sure to follow the product instructions and ensure it’s appropriate for your child’s age and size.
If your child seems to experience allergies often, you may want to visit an allergy specialist. They can help you narrow down potential allergens and recommend a long-term management plan.
Exposure to various environmental irritants can cause inflammation in the throat that leads to a dry cough.
Common irritants that can cause a cough include:
- cigarette smoke
- car exhaust
- air pollution
- air that’s too cold or dry
If your child is frequently exposed to an irritant, the dry cough may become chronic. Your child may be more susceptible to irritation if they also have allergies or asthma.
Coughs caused by exposure to irritants usually resolve on their own once the irritant is removed.
A somatic cough is a term that doctors use to refer to a cough that doesn’t have a clear cause and doesn’t respond to treatment. These coughs are usually caused by some kind of underlying psychological issue or distress.
These coughs often last for more than six months and get in the way of day-to-day activities.
If your child’s healthcare provider has ruled out all the potential causes of their dry cough, they may diagnose it as a somatic cough. You’ll likely be referred to a child psychologist or psychiatrist. In addition, hypnotherapy may also be helpful in treating the condition.
It can take some time to figure out the cause of a dry cough in children.
These tips can help to provide some relief in the meantime:
- Inhale warm, moist air. Turn on the shower in your bathroom and close the door, allowing the room to steam up. Sit with your child for around 20 minutes as they inhale the warm mist.
- Use a humidifier. If the air in your house is dry, it can dry out your child’s airways as well. Try using a humidifier to add moisture to the air. Shop for humidifiers online.
- Drink warm fluids. If your child’s throat is sore from coughing, warm fluids can feel soothing. If your child is a at least a year old, you can add some honey for added relief.
- Use OTC meds with caution. Only give OTC cough medicine to children over age 6, and be sure to carefully follow the dosing directions on the packaging. Children under age 6 shouldn’t take OTC cough medicine unless it is recommended by their healthcare provider. If an OTC cough medicine does not seem to give your child temporary relief from their cough, there is no benefit to continuing to use it. These medicines do not cure a cough or help it go away faster.