The Barking Cough

Welcome to my first Ask Dr.Mom post! Thank you for all the wonderful questions you have submitted. Keep the questions coming and keep an eye out for them every Wednesday. Today I’ll be talking about croup.

Dear Dr.Mom

What the heck is croup?


Great question Jamie. The Fall and Winter months see an influx of this viral illness and its telltale sign: the barking cough. Here are pertinent key facts regarding croup along with measures you can take to help your little one feel better should they come down with it.

What is Croup?

  • Croup is a viral illness causing inflammation of the voice box (larynx) and windpipe (trachea)
  • The most common virus to cause croup is the parainfluenza virus
  • croup is considered an upper airway infection
  • Children ages 3 months to 3 years old are most commonly affected. It is rare to see a child over the age of 6 years old with croup.

What are the symptoms of Croup?

  • The first symptoms of croup are similar to that of a common cold such as stuffy nose and fever.
  • The fever is usually lower than 104 F
  • After 1-2 days of cold symptoms, the telltale cough will appear
  • This cough is characterized by its barking sound (like that of a barking seal).
  • The cough is usually worse at night (of course it is!)
  • The child usually also has a hoarse voice because of the inflammation of the larynx and vocal cords
  • Most cases of croup are mild although the barking cough can sound quite scary especially in the middle of the night.
  • Stridor which is a harsh and raspy sound when the child breathes in, is a more serious symptom and requires evaluation.
  • The croupy cough usually peaks during the 2nd or 3rd night then gets better. The cold like symptoms may persist for a total of 7 days.

How can I treat Croup?

  • Since croup is a viral infection, antibiotics are of no help.
  • If your child wakes up at night with this barking cough, sit with your child in the bathroom while running a hot shower. After about 10-15 minutes of exposure to this warm steam, your child’s airway will become less inflamed and more clear.
  • A cool mist humidifier in your child’s room will also help her breathe easier at night.
  • Sometimes the cold night air will help reduce the airway inflammation.
  • Be sure to treat your child’s fever with a fever reducer. This will make her a lot more comfortable
  • Keep your child as calm and comfortable as possible. Crying makes this barking cough sound worse.
  • Continue to offer clear liquids throughout the day to avoid dehydration
  • Do not use cough syrups or antihistamines. They do not help children with croup.
  • If your child is having difficulty breathing or has stridor, your child’s doctor may prescribe steroids.

When to call the Doctor

  • Your child has stridor (the harsh and raspy sound made by taking a breath).
  • Your child is having difficulty breathing
  • Your child cannot talk because she cannot catch her breath
  • Your child looks worried
  • Your child appears very ill and sleepy
  • Your child has a pale or bluish discoloration around her mouth
  • Your child’s croupy cough does not seem to be getting better after the 3rd day
  • Whenever in doubt, call your child’s doctor.

For the most part, most cases of croup are mild. Your child may return to school or daycare once the fever has resolved and your child is ready to participate in his daily activities. The best prevention for croup is diligent hand washing since croup is spread just like the common cold: droplet transmission and person to person contact.

Has Croup hit your household lately? Do you have any additional tips or stories to share regarding the treatment of croup?

*Please continue to submit your awesome questions by e-mailing me at mommamd4two(at)aol(dot)com.*

*The information provided here is for informational purposes only. It should not be considered medical advice and is not a substitute for seeking medical attention from your own doctor. Always see a doctor should you have concerns regarding your child’s health, diagnosis, or treatment. If you feel you have a medical emergency, call 911*

33 Responses to The Barking Cough
  1. Tractor Mom
    November 17, 2010 | 5:02 am

    My 21 month old has had about 4 bouts of croup. Everytime we had a cold, he had croup! His doctor sent us to a pulomnologist just to be sure that he didn't have some other underlining problem. He's fine. My best advice is what you said already–cool night air. We bundle him up and sit on the front porch for about 15-20 minutes, or until we get too cold! We had found that using a neli-pot to keep the nose as clear as possible. We are starting to use nasal sprays during the runny nose times. Thanks for the post!

  2. Booyah's Momma
    November 17, 2010 | 5:53 am

    I really despise that barking seal cough. It just sounds so awful… it makes my hear want to break. Thank goodness for that humidifier! My doctor said it was okay to use Vicks vapor rub on their chest… that seems to help sometimes as well.

    Awesome post. Keep 'em coming!

  3. TheBabyMammaChronicles
    November 17, 2010 | 10:47 am

    Thanks for the info, all illnesses, small to large freak me out when it comes to my sweet baby so its always good to know the facts.

  4. Cheryl D.
    November 17, 2010 | 11:04 am

    We only had to deal with croup once. We didn't know what to do and ended up taking our daughter to the ER. It was probably the right call since she was having some problems breathing. They gave her steroids, which helped immensely.

  5. Flying Giggles and Lollipops
    November 17, 2010 | 11:30 am

    It seems like we are hearing about more and more cases of croup lately. Thanks for the info!

  6. Liz
    November 17, 2010 | 1:17 pm

    I had it when I was 5, along with epiglititis (sp?). i was hospitalized for it, and the smell of saran wrap still takes me back to that oxygen tent i had to sleep under!

  7. Missy@Wonder, Friend
    November 17, 2010 | 1:32 pm

    Oh, my oldest has had croup twice. The first time was awful and very scary – landed us in the ER. The second time wasn't as bad, except it happened to coincide with when I went into labor with my second. Kids – they have such timing, don't they?

  8. Mrs.Mayhem
    November 17, 2010 | 2:41 pm

    Croup is awful and very scary. My sons have both had it, but luckily the girls haven't.

  9. Bethany @ Organic Enchilada
    November 17, 2010 | 3:56 pm

    Good stuff. I packed my humidifier today in hopes that that might prevent me from needing it. I'm sure the opposite will be true.

  10. Laura
    November 17, 2010 | 5:28 pm

    Great informative post! I've spent many a night in the bathroom with the shower running, holding a coughing boy…

  11. Reyna
    November 17, 2010 | 11:50 pm

    Where were you 20 years ago?

    What helpful information!

    Mine are all grown but I have a grandchild so thanks for your expertise!

  12. Joey @ Big Teeth and Clouds
    November 18, 2010 | 7:45 am

    Julia has a cough (worse at night of course) but it's not the barking type. I fear it will be here for the rest of the winter!

  13. Rebekah C
    November 18, 2010 | 8:24 am

    I wrote a post a little while back about a trip to the ER with my oldest. After reading this, I had to laugh, because I believe now that croup is exactly what she had. The doctor at the hospital didn't call it that, though! HA. She did get a nebulizer treatment, though.

  14. Lady Jennie
    November 18, 2010 | 11:07 am

    We had our first terrifying experience with this the night before we moved to France. Luckily we were staying with a friend who knew what to do, otherwise we would have gone to the emergency room.

  15. Eat. Live. Laugh. and sometimes shop!
    November 18, 2010 | 1:28 pm

    My little girl used to get it and it was HORRIBLE. We luckily have a steam shower we could let her lay in there with the steam flowing and always calm the bark. I didn't realize it was something she wouldn't likely get any more (she is 7 now). That is great news!

  16. Moomser
    November 18, 2010 | 5:05 pm

    Haven't had to deal with this yet, but sounds terrible. Great post, it's always good to know what we could be dealing with and have ready solutions, though I may become a hypochondriac!

  17. Yuliya
    November 18, 2010 | 10:22 pm

    This is a great question, I will file away the answer but will hopefully never need it!

    Will you be putting these Dr.Mom features into a separate category of your blog? For easy future reference?

  18. Dina
    November 19, 2010 | 10:45 pm

    Thank you, this post is so helpful! I love the way you broke down all the information for easy reference. My daughter had a mild RSV a few weeks ago and I thought that sounded terrible. In fact all the moms in my pediatrician's waiting room thought she sounded terrible–which added to my anxiety–but now I see that the sound doesn't necessarily correlate to the severity.

  19. Annette
    November 20, 2010 | 6:07 am

    So good to know. My little guy and I are both suffering from colds at the moment, so it's great to know what signs to look for that will distinguish a cold from something else…

  20. Kristin
    November 22, 2010 | 8:28 am

    Ellie had croup this year – so scary!

    Is it true that kids with bad allergies can suffer more frequently?

  21. Mari (aka mootpoynt)
    December 10, 2010 | 7:38 pm

    Our daughter had croup, and we were on the foggy northern CA coast, visiting our parents. Her case was pretty bad, so we bundled her up and took her to the E.R. While we were waiting, she perked up and was singing on the gurney. I was so embarrassed to be telling the doctor, yes, she really had been coughing like a seal. He laughed and said it happened all the time…The act of getting the kids into the car and from the car to the E.R. had them out in the cool, moist air. Voila! Happy baby. Since then, we run a cool mist humidifier, as you said.

  22. Neshia nunu
    September 16, 2011 | 2:02 am

    My 3yr old has croup now. It is avery scary thing to hear coming out of ur childs mouth. Very upsetting to hve to watch ur child b n some much pain n can’t do much about giving her hot showers rubbing vixx on her chest wen she gets out-but nuthing seems to help her at night. This forum had stated wgat croup is and how bad it can get but how can u take the cough down a few at night.when ur child n u hve been up till 5am she cant sleep cuz the couging is so intense n long lasting….besides what was listed. As mothers what do u do. This question answered wld help out 1st timers.some ways as parents help to stop the cough not just what text book methods are…….

  23. Jenn
    October 11, 2011 | 8:43 pm

    Croup is scary sounding and you never get used to or comfortable with it. I say this as I am laying in bed listening to my 10 yr old cough every couple of minutes. Yes I said 10…. She is one of those rare exceptions who never outgrew it. We usually have 2-3 bouts every year,she’s a trooper and we haven’t had to go to the e.r. in 4 years for it. Steamy shower(bathroom) and cold( sometimes the head in the freezer, no joke) switching off works great.

    • Melanie
      November 1, 2012 | 1:55 pm

      My 8 yr. old still gets it too!!! Not nearly as bad as when she was young. She has had it for a week now, off and on with fever. Her cough is just as bad during the day as at night.

  24. Cathy
    November 29, 2011 | 12:07 am

    My two youngest children, age 1 and 4, had croup last week. We did the steam showers with them, lots of fluids, fever reducers for their fevers, and also essential oils rubbed on their chests and feet. Peppermint, and a blend called Breathe which contains several oils that help relax the airways. They helped tremendously! So glad I had these oils on hand. They are super-powerful yet safe to use on kids.

  25. […] The Barking Cough […]

  26. Tricia
    May 15, 2012 | 10:01 am

    My 18 month old is just now getting over the croup. I found an old fashion remedy for the bouts of it that happen. Especially at night. Luckily he had it mild, but there were a few times at night when his coughing got pretty bad and made me a bit nervous. Anyway the trick was to place a very cold wet wash cloth on his throat and then place a dry one (like a small hand towel or something like that) on top of it. Change the cold wet one if it starts to get warm. You could also wrap up a boo boo buddy from the freezer in the wet cloth and use that, just as long as it did not get to cold. This worked like a charm and each time he would fall asleep in my arms with the cold cloth still on. His coughing fit subsided very quickly and slept well after that. This also is a little easier to get and do quickly vs. waiting for a shower to get hot and the bathroom to steam up. From the time I knew he was really struggling with the coughing fit; to the point I had the cold cloth and it was helping was less than 3 minutes average.

  27. anonomous
    July 18, 2012 | 6:56 pm

    my doctor said i have croup and im 11

  28. Jan
    August 21, 2012 | 5:13 am

    My 4 year old has croup ( barking cough at night), he’s ok but the sound is really scarey for him . We use inhalers plus Calpol to reduce his temp and to take away any pain. I find Olbas Oil ( menthol)sprinkled on his pillow case & on his teddy which he holds onto for dear life really helpful.Must try the cool air tonight to see if it helps..

  29. Mandy
    August 24, 2012 | 5:00 am

    Thanks for this post, so helpful! The humidifier helped our son but I imagine the menthol would help too if it wakes up tomorrow night.

    • Jessica
      September 4, 2012 | 8:49 pm

      I have heard mix things about vics as it can cause more irritation. I am going to try the cold cloth. My 12 month old daughter has it and i am afraid that she may have stridor as she sounds like a horrible raspy noise when she breathes, I may take her in first thing in the morning if its still there. Our Dr. also said to hold open the freezer and let her breath the air since it is warm out side. Thank you for the great ideas!

  30. stephanie
    September 23, 2012 | 10:56 pm

    I’ve been up with my 6 1/2 year old for over an hour. She has had a cold for a feq days and us now up coughing like crazy, deep painful coughs. I’m almost positive that its croup…

  31. jennifer anderson
    October 25, 2012 | 5:38 pm

    Im sitting at tge drs. Now with my six year old daughter whos been coughing like a seal for about three days now. Also before that she’s had fever, and very bad chills. I dont know what the Dr will prescribe for her byt im sure shell get better. She always at least once a year gets the croup cough.
    However the more times they give a child antibiotics, the more amune they get to it, then when antibiotics are needed later on in life as an adult, they won’t work as well because her system had already become accustomed.