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Cough – Toddlers (1-6 years)

Thousands of children are seen unnecessarily in the ER every year due to a cough. Why? Because coughs are confusing! There are so many illnesses with ‘cough’ listed as a symptom and a dry cough in kids can linger for weeks after other symptoms have gone away (it is considered a persistent or chronic cough after three weeks). So it’s only natural that we are scratching our heads, wondering when to be worried. Let’s dive into this a bit and figure out when to be concerned and how to soothe our little loves with some home remedies for cough in toddlers.

Common causes of cough in kids

As stated above, there are many illnesses our kiddos get that will cause coughing:

  • The common cold
  • Influenza (Get your vaccines!)
  • Pneumonia (Get your vaccines!)
  • Whooping cough (Get your vaccines!)
  • Asthma
  • Allergies
  • Bronchiolitis (typically under 2 years of age)
  • Croup (barking cough in kids)
  • RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus)
  • Postnasal drip
  • GER or GERD (Gastroesophageal Reflux or Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease, depending on how long symptoms have been occurring.)

The biggest takeaway here is that coughs are hopping on board with everything else our poor kids are suffering from. Coughing itself is actually not all bad – it’s our body’s way of protecting us, clearing irritants and secretions from our lungs. Grab your Kinsa thermometer and see if your child has a fever along with his cough. Even if he doesn’t, you can still select current symptoms and the Kinsa app will guide you from there.

Coughing day after day, besides testing the patience of our loved ones, is uncomfortable. The biggest thing we see from this is a sore throat. It can also cause vomiting. This will scare the daylights out of you but don’t panic, this can be normal. Sometimes our kiddos cough so hard they can vomit. And honestly, it’s less often from the force of the cough but from excess mucus that our body needs to get rid of.

What to do for toddler cough and cough remedies for kids:

  • Fluids! Drink TONS of water. Often times, our kids are coughing because of a runny nose and it is draining in the back of the throat. The more they drink, the thinner the drainage becomes and it is easier to get it out! Water, tea, broth – any of these are great for hydration and comforting when sick!
  • Suction bulbs with or without saline flushes. Sometimes the mucus is so thick we need to thin it out with saline drops, rinses, or flushes. Again, drink water to help this! If your kids are old enough to blow their nose well, great! Congratulations on getting to this step in parenthood! If they still refuse to help you out, you can use a suction bulb to clear their tiny nose. Be careful not to do this too frequently, a couple times a day should do the trick. We don’t want to cause extra irritation to the nasal passage.
  • Cool-mist humidifier. This will help moisten the dry air and can help decrease coughing from a dry, scratchy throat. The warm-mist humidifiers increase the risk of a burn, either from the hot steam or from a water spill. It is not proven to be more effective than the cool-mist humidifiers because the heat dissipates too quickly to actually make a difference by the time your kiddo is breathing it in. There’s also no reason to add anything to the water, such as essential oils.
  • Cold or frozen food/drinks. A good popsicle always soothes a sore throat and lifts a sick kid’s spirit. Bonus? It also helps with hydration! Keep this limited to the older kiddos – we don’t want the little ones choking.
  • Spoonful of honey. This can soothe a sore throat and loosen a cough. Remember! Babies under 1 year old may not have honey.
  • Elevate the head of the bed. Ever notice your toddler cough at night (postnasal drip cough)? We’ve tucked our little angel into bed and suddenly it’s like a river down the back of their throats and they can’t stop coughing. Clean out their nose the best you can and prop them up.
  • Tylenol or Ibuprofen. These are to help the discomfort, not to cure the cough. It’s really not needed unless you feel your babe is in pain from the cough or their temperature is >102℉.
  • Cough suppressants or expectorants should not be used for this age group (nobody under 6 years old; cough medicine for all kids should always be avoided if possible – the risk of accidental overdose is too high).
  • Products that contain menthol – such as vapor rubs – should not be used in kids under 2 years old, as it can cause respiratory distress.

Some might feel the need to give Benadryl to help suppress the cough and get some sleep but this is also not recommended. Let those little bodies cough out the illness and move on!

When to worry about a cough:

If the cough is lingering around longer than 3 weeks, make an appointment with your pediatrician to see if something else is going on.

  • Shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, difficulty swallowing. Don’t waste time making an appointment here –  head to the ER.
  • Wheezing cough. If the wheezing is severe and leads to difficulty breathing, head to the ER. If during office hours, you hear a slight wheeze but your child is otherwise uncompromised, it is okay to call your pediatrician and go from there.
  • Coughing up phlegm or mucus (especially yellow or green mucus), or pink/bloody phlegm. This is usually a sign that an infection is brewing and time to make an appointment with the doc.
  • Vomiting blood. Vomiting with coughing can be normal. If you see blood, we’ve crossed the line into ‘abnormal’ and it warrants a trip to the ER.
  • Fever >102℉. Always ask your pediatrician for specific temperature guidelines, they can vary slightly depending on their preferences.
  • Signs of dehydration. Dry mouth, dry skin, decreased urination. Do your best to keep your kiddo hydrated on your own, but if it doesn’t seem to be working, see your doctor.
  • Nothing is working. If you’re doing everything you can at home to make your babe more comfortable but it isn’t working – or they seem to be getting worse – call the pediatrician.

At the end of the day, follow your gut. You are ALWAYS the expert on your own child and you are their advocate! Coughing is an aggravating symptom to deal with day after day, so hang in there, Mama. Do your part to increase comfort where you can and slowly but surely, your babe will begin to feel better. And as they battle this illness, remind them to wash their hands - everyone in the family! You can’t wash too much. Also, have your kiddo cough and sneeze into a kleenex or into their sleeve. And grab some disinfectant to get those germs out of the house so you can move on before the next thing strikes.

Blake Wageman

Blake Wageman, RN, BSN has over 14 years of nursing under her belt, primarily focused on NICU babies and, just as importantly, their worried parents.