Croup: What parents can do and when to worry

barking coughIf you’ve ever had a child with croup, you know that telltale, harsh, barking cough well. It’s unnerving and unmistakable. And usually, the worst of it happens at night, when you’re bleary eyed, exhausted, and full of worry.

Parents primarily want to know what they can do for their child in those midnight hours and if they should be worried and take them in to be seen.

Before I give you some tips on how to ease your child’s cough, let’s first determine if it is, in fact, croup you are dealing with.

Does my child have Croup?

Croup starts out like a regular run of the mill cold; with runny nose, congestion, and fever. The fever can be quite high. 104 F in some cases. Soon after, you’ll hear it…that “is there a seal barking in my living room?” cough. Then, you’ll know…yes, my child has Croup.

Why/How did my child get the Croup?

Croup is extremely common in young children. It’s caused by a virus (namely, the parainfluenza virus) and is transmitted in much the same way as colds and the flu: droplets from sneezing, coughing, and hand to mouth transmission. You’ll see (and hear) more children with Croup in the Fall and Winter months.

The virus causes swelling and irritation of your child’s larynx (voice box) and trachea (airway). This is exactly why your child will likely have a hoarse voice and why you hear that terrible sounding, harsh, barking cough.

What can I do for my child? (Especially in the middle of the night)

When you’re awakened by the sound of your child coughing that awful sounding cough, take heart, you can help him feel and sleep better. If your child is awake and cannot sleep because of the cough, take him to the bathroom and have him sit on your lap while a hot shower is running. The warm, moist air will soothe his airways and soon you’ll notice the coughing has decreased.

Cool mist humidifiers work great too and in the same way. The moisture in the air, calms the swelling in the airways and can ease the severity of coughing. It’s not unusual to hear of worried parents packing their child up in their car and rushing off to the ER, only to discover that once they get there, their child’s cough has almost completely resolved. Why? The cool nighttime air aided in soothing those irritable airway.

In addition, make sure to keep your child well hydrated throughout her illness by offering frequent amounts of clear liquids. If she has a high fever that is making her miserable, offer her the correct dose of acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Also, see my post on fever.

Okay, so when should I be worried?

In general, and in most cases, Croup is a mild and self limited viral infection lasting between 3-7 days. The harsh sounding cough is typically the worst of it. However, there are times (especially in very young children) when you should worry and have your child seen by his doctor.

If your child makes a high pitched squeaking sound when he breathes in (stridor), this is an indication that his airway swelling is more severe and could potentially interfere with his breathing.

Your child appears dehydrated, extremely fatigued, worried, or is having labored breathing.

You child looks very ill.

These are all reasons to seek immediate medical attention. In these more severe cases of Croup, your child’s doctor may give her some steroids to help decrease airway swelling or a special breathing treatment. She may also need to be observed in a medical facility before returning home.

Now you know…you can help your child get through Croup and you know when you should worry.

What has been your experience with the barking cough of Croup?


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17 Responses to Croup: What parents can do and when to worry
  1. Peryl
    October 14, 2011 | 7:25 pm

    My four year-old has had croup attacks from about 8 months on every few months. The first several involved emergency room visits because we couldn’t get the strider under control, and now we have the steroid he needs at home, which saves a lot of stress. The drs keep saying he’ll outgrow it – fingers xed! I recently met a woman who said she had croup attacks into her teens!

    • Melissa
      October 15, 2011 | 10:50 pm

      Wow Peryl, your poor little one! I’m glad you have the steroids to help out when he comes down with it. Hopefully, he grows out of it before the teen years!

  2. Twitted by Melissa_DrMom
    October 15, 2011 | 4:57 pm

    […] This post was Twitted by Melissa_DrMom […]

  3. Barbara Manatee
    October 16, 2011 | 6:48 pm

    My son gets croup at least 2x a year..sometimes more. You know how some kids get colds and they always lead to ear infections?? He’s the kid who gets a cold and it always leads to croup. We’ve thankfully never needed to head to the ER but we have made some late night calls to the Dr, just to be sure.

    Its always scary, even though we know what to do…

  4. DB
    October 17, 2011 | 7:50 am

    Never fun. I remember many snowy winter nights my husband carrying the kids around the neighborhood in the wee hours of the night for that cold air. It also seems to help take their minds off of it. It seems the more anxious they are, the worse it gets.

  5. Fran
    October 20, 2011 | 1:06 am

    My son has had croup a couple of times and it just made me feel helpless. The first time he had it, I was glad we had picked the pediatrician that we had. He told us about the steroid treatment and we opted for the single shot, which cleared up his breathing problems, almost immediately it seemed.

  6. […] it is and how unnerving that barking cough can be. This gives you the low down on Croup. Also read this one, my updated post on Croup from this […]

  7. Cristy
    January 31, 2012 | 3:34 am

    My son had croup when he was two. It hit him so fast. One of the craziest days of my life…..I did the stay calm put him in a steamy bathroom……….still didn’t help so we walked out side to the cold of January in Kansas. After 5 mins. I thought I had it under control and him calmed down. He went into a coughing attacking and the next 10 mins. was trying to calm him down. He couldn’t cry or cough and his lips started turning blue. I rushed him up to our local small town Dr. where they took him straight back and started oxygen on him. The oxygen worked but every time they took him off the oxygen it got bad again. His oxygen levels were very low so they took him by ambulance to the hospital. There they started steroids and breathing treatments. He was admitted and we ended up spending two nights at the hospital. It was a very scary moment and one I will never forget. He is now 8 years old and still gets one break out of croup a year. Staying calm is the key……………keeping him relaxed helps so much!!!!! We’ve never been back to the hospital for croup but now know how important it is to stay relaxed.

  8. Croup- What Parents Should Know
    September 24, 2012 | 12:56 pm

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  9. Tracey
    October 6, 2012 | 12:00 pm

    My poor 14 year old has croup…go figure! 104.2F temp when it started and now barking like a seal. Gotta say that I was a little embarrassed when I took him to the doc. Experience mother of two teens and I couldn’t remember that tell-tale sound, just didn’t expect it in an older child.

    He’s so tired but being a trooper. 6 days and counting.

    • Nat
      October 14, 2012 | 6:03 pm

      Did you find out why your 14 year old had croup at such an older age? Mine has always been croupy. But always had it with colds. Now he barks all the time. They are doing X-rays now and the ENT and docs or perplexed.

  10. Tracey
    October 17, 2012 | 6:27 am

    No explanation as to why croup after a 12 year hiatus. He’s still coughing a bit two and a half weeks later. I presume a mutated parainfluenza virus for which he did not have sufficient immunity – but that’s really just a wild guess.

  11. cynthia
    November 1, 2012 | 6:34 pm

    My 8 year old daughter get croup at least once a year and it’s when the weather changes from hot to cold..I was told by the NP that I work with that it probably isn’t croup because she’s to old to have it but everytime I took her to the ER they just gave her benedryl and sent her home…She also gets real thick mucus when she starts coughing like a seal and she has a hard time breathing in the process(the mucus is real thick). I read up on cystic fibrosis and it is inherited by a parent and also has to do with thick mucus and coughing…I think it’s croup and I don’t want alot of tests done on her cause she will get can I determine which one it really is???

  12. Rebecca
    November 5, 2012 | 11:49 pm

    I am so nervous right now i think that my 8 month old son may have croup. I’m staying calm but seeing him cough the way he does breaks my heart. Thank you for the hot shower tip that’s my next thing i’m going to try.

  13. Heather
    November 13, 2012 | 5:58 am

    My son is pretty much the same as cynthia posted above with her 8year old. My son is now 14 years old but got croup several times a year srarting at 1yrs old. Several times we ended up in the emergency room because he was struggling so hard to breath his stomach would concave with each breath. He would also have the really thick mucus which was so thick he would have to “vomit” it up. We have also had to do finger swipes to get the mucus out of his throat. Very scary!! Then suddenly he stopped getting croup at 9 years old. We were so releaved! He has been fine until a couple days ago. He started coughing and i didn’t think it was a big deal. Then this morning, getting ready for school, he was complaining about his throat feeling swollen and not being able to breath very good…and of course the wheezing started. Good luck finding answers. After all these years, all the Drs and appts. I still have no answers. Although the one thing I found that helped better then his breathing treatments is primatene mist I started using that at around 8 years old.

  14. Cynthia H
    January 26, 2013 | 4:34 am

    My daughter had her first croup attack at 8 months. Very scary thought she was chocking. Had to rush her to emergency. They treated her with oxygen and humidfier. Told us she would grow out of it by age 5. She suffered until she was about 17 years old. Yes 17. There was never any temp, or mucus. Always came on around the change of seasons. She got very used to the signs and before the barking and breathing got bad would treat herslf with steam showers. A humidifier was not enough warm moisture. When we moved to a newer home with forced air heat it came on more often. Her ped said it is uncommon but not unheard of. She was tested to rule out other respiratory illnesses, and turned out to be just plain ole croup. Go figure.

  15. kelly
    April 7, 2013 | 3:39 pm

    my 11month old has been hopitalized for almost 3 days now hes not sick at all has a little cough but with this croup its affecting his breathing only very very restricted breathing hes had about 10 steriod shots and 15 breathing treatment and his restrcited breathing still isnt better he was using his neck and stomack musles to breath they now gave him zertic and singular hes really bad but my two year old had it for a couple of days and medicene aND WAS FINE SO ITS DIFFERENT FOR EVERYONE