Coughing is your body’s way of getting rid of an irritant. Many things can cause a dry cough in kids, from a simple cold to an inhaled object.

Coughing is an important part of your body’s defense system, helping 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.

These are some common causes of cough in children:


Various viral or bacterial respiratory infections can lead to coughing due to irritation and inflammation in the airways.

The most familiar cause is the common cold, an infection in your upper respiratory tract with symptoms including sneezing, runny nose, and coughing. Rhinovirus is the most common cause of the common cold.

Another common cause is bronchitis, which can occur as a result of either the common cold or the flu. Bronchitis can be acute or chronic. Acute bronchitis is usually a result of an infection. Chronic bronchitis can happen due to smoking or being exposed to air pollution.

Other infections that can lead to dry cough in kids include:

  • croup: a viral condition that causes swelling around the vocal cords. It is usually viral but may be bacterial less commonly.
  • pneumonia: an infection that causes inflammation in the lungs. It can be viral or bacterial.
  • bronchiolitis: a viral infection that causes inflammation in the bronchioles or smallest passages in your lungs.
  • pertussis: known as whooping cough, it’s a bacterial respiratory infection that causes violent, uncontrollable coughing that can make it hard to breathe. Whooping cough can be prevented through vaccination.
  • COVID-19: The coronavirus can present with dry cough in children.

Depending on the infection, the cough may sound hoarse or have more of a wheezing sound. It may also worsen at night due to mucus from the nose trickling down the throat, irritating.

Other signs that your child may have a viral infection include:

  • fever
  • runny or stuffy nose
  • sneezing
  • headache
  • 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) to help relieve fevers and body aches. Babies younger than 6 months can get acetaminophen (Tylenol). Avoid giving them aspirin, which can cause Reye’s 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.


Allergies happen when the immune system mistakes something harmless for a foreign invader and overreacts.

The thing that causes an allergic reaction is called an allergen. There are many allergens, including pollen, animal dander, and specific foods or medications.

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 like dust. For example, seasonal allergy or allergic rhinitis may develop in the spring when pollen is in the air.

Other allergy symptoms include:

  • sneezing
  • itchy, watery eyes
  • runny nose
  • rash

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 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 potential allergens and recommend a long-term management plan.


Allergies can also make asthma worse. This chronic disease causes inflammation and narrowing of the airways, making it hard to breathe. Symptoms of asthma can also be triggered by 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 professional will work with you to develop an asthma action plan. The plan will include your child’s asthma triggers and how and when they should take their medication.

Asthma medication helps 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.

Environmental irritants

Exposure to various environmental irritants can cause throat inflammation, leading 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

The dry cough may become chronic if your child is frequently exposed to an irritant. Your child may be more susceptible to irritation if they also have allergies or asthma.

Coughs caused by exposure to irritants usually resolve once the irritant is removed.

Inhaled or swallowed foreign object

It’s not unusual for young children to put things in their mouths or noses, 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 removing the object, you’ll want to monitor them for signs of infection or further irritation.


Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is chronic acid reflux that can cause regurgitation, which is when the stomach’s content rises back up into the esophagus.

The burning sensation your child may feel is what we call heartburn. In some cases, however, some children with GERD can also experience persistent cough, hoarseness, or wheezing.

Different triggers for GERD in children may include exposure to secondhand smoking, obesity, and coexisting conditions that affect the lungs or the nervous system.

Somatic cough

A psychosomatic or 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. An underlying psychological issue or distress usually causes these coughs.

But these coughs are rarely diagnosed as there is more often a physical cause for the cough. If they occur, these coughs often last for more than 6 months and get in the way of day-to-day activities.

If your child’s healthcare professional 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.

It can take some time to figure out the cause of a dry cough in children. The main treatment will depend on the underlying cause.

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 about 20 minutes as they inhale the warm mist.
  • Use a cool mist humidifier. If the air in your house is dry, it can also dry out your child’s airways. Try using a cool mist humidifier to add moisture to the air. Avoid heated humidifiers as these can cause burns.
  • Drink warm fluids. Warm fluids can feel soothing if your child’s throat is sore from coughing. If your child is at least a year old, you can add some honey for added relief.

Coughing helps your body get rid of potentially harmful microbes and irritants. In children, dry coughs can be caused by many things, including viral or bacterial infections, asthma, allergies, and irritants.

OTC cough medications, inhaling steam from warm fluid, and using a cool-mist humidifier may help relieve cough symptoms. But you should discuss with your pediatrician which medication is appropriate for your child based on age and the right dosage.

Most coughs will resolve in 1 to 2 weeks, but contact a doctor if your child’s cough lasts longer than 2 to 3 weeks.

Here you will find answers to some common questions about dry cough in children:

What can I give my child for a dry cough?

In some cases, giving your child OTC cough medicines may be appropriate. But only give it to a child older than 6, and ensure to carefully follow the dosing directions on the packaging.

Children under age 6 shouldn’t take OTC cough medication unless it is recommended by their healthcare professional, especially decongestants, which can be associated with dangerous side effects.

If an OTC cough medication does not seem to help, there is no benefit to continuing to use it. These medicines do not cure a cough or help it go away faster.

Should I take my child to the doctor for a dry cough?

Most coughs will resolve in 1 to 2 weeks. If your child’s cough lasts longer than 2 to 3 weeks, contact a doctor.

When should I be concerned about my child’s cough?

Reasons for concern and seeking medical attention include:

  • if you observed your child choking or think they may have swallowed an object
  • if your child’s cough is increasingly frustrating
  • if it persists longer than you think is reasonable
  • if your child coughs up blood
  • if the cough is affecting your child’s ability to participate in daily activities
  • If your child is struggling to breathe or breathing fast