When to call the doctor about your child’s cough

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Know when to call your child's pediatrician about a cough. (Adobe Stock)

Come winter, it’s difficult to escape the cacophony of hacking and throat-clearing that accompanies the common cold. Fortunately, most coughs are associated with self-limiting respiratory infections and will clear up on their own with time. But how do you know when a cough is worrisome — and when it’s time to call your pediatrician? We asked Dr. Tregony Simoneau, a pulmonologist in the Aerodigestive Center at Boston Children’s Hospital, to weigh in. Here are seven things to consider when making the call.

1. Your child’s age

It’s normal for kids to catch several colds a year. But if your child is younger than 1 year old, they should see their pediatrician, especially if the cough is accompanied by a fever.

It’s normal for kids to catch several colds a year. But if your child is younger than 1 year old, they should see their pediatrician, especially if the cough is accompanied by a fever.

It’s normal for kids to catch several colds a year. But if your child is younger than 1 year old, they should see their pediatrician, especially if the cough is accompanied by a fever.

2. The length of the cough

Most coughs will go away within a week to 10 days. If your child has been coughing for two weeks or more — or if they’ve been coughing nonstop — call your pediatrician.

Most coughs will go away within a week to 10 days. If your child has been coughing for two weeks or more — or if they’ve been coughing nonstop — call your pediatrician.

Most coughs will go away within a week to 10 days. If your child has been coughing for two weeks or more — or if they’ve been coughing nonstop — call your pediatrician.

3. Worse at night

If your child has a cold, this could be a sign that they have post-nasal drip. If it persists, a cough that's worse at night can be a sign of asthma or gastroesophageal reflux.

If your child has a cold, this could be a sign that they have post-nasal drip. If it persists, a cough that's worse at night can be a sign of asthma or gastroesophageal reflux.

If your child has a cold, this could be a sign that they have post-nasal drip. If it persists, a cough that's worse at night can be a sign of asthma or gastroesophageal reflux.

4. Choking or gagging

“A chronic wet-sounding cough is worrisome from an aerodigestive perspective because it can indicate aspiration, or the inhalation of food or liquid into the lungs,” says Dr. Simoneau. Your pediatrician can refer you to an aerodigestive specialist if your child seems to be coughing when they eat or drink. Choking and gagging can also be signs of an allergy-related cough or of gastroesophageal reflux.

“A chronic wet-sounding cough is worrisome from an aerodigestive perspective because it can indicate aspiration, or the inhalation of food or liquid into the lungs,” says Dr. Simoneau. Your pediatrician can refer you to an aerodigestive specialist if your child seems to be coughing when they eat or drink. Choking and gagging can also be signs of an allergy-related cough or of gastroesophageal reflux.

“A chronic wet-sounding cough is worrisome from an aerodigestive perspective because it can indicate aspiration, or the inhalation of food or liquid into the lungs,” says Dr. Simoneau. Your pediatrician can refer you to an aerodigestive specialist if your child seems to be coughing when they eat or drink. Choking and gagging can also be signs of an allergy-related cough or of gastroesophageal reflux.

5. Wheezing

Wheezing or gasping could indicate asthma or another respiratory condition. If you’re concerned, it’s worth contacting your pediatrician.

Wheezing or gasping could indicate asthma or another respiratory condition. If you’re concerned, it’s worth contacting your pediatrician.

Wheezing or gasping could indicate asthma or another respiratory condition. If you’re concerned, it’s worth contacting your pediatrician.

6. Coughing with exercise

Children may cough with physical activity when they’re recovering from a cold. However, coughing with exercise can also be a sign of asthma, so a call to your pediatrician may be in order if it’s a persistent problem.

Children may cough with physical activity when they’re recovering from a cold. However, coughing with exercise can also be a sign of asthma, so a call to your pediatrician may be in order if it’s a persistent problem.

Children may cough with physical activity when they’re recovering from a cold. However, coughing with exercise can also be a sign of asthma, so a call to your pediatrician may be in order if it’s a persistent problem.

7. A "barky" cough

A cough that sounds “barky” like a seal or dog can signal croup, a respiratory condition that causes a child’s larynx (voice box) and trachea (windpipe) to swell. Croup is common during childhood and usually clears up on its own. If symptoms persist, call the pediatrician: It could be a sign of recurrent croup or of a more serious airway disorder such as tracheomalacia, which requires specialty care.

A cough that sounds “barky” like a seal or dog can signal croup, a respiratory condition that causes a child’s larynx (voice box) and trachea (windpipe) to swell. Croup is common during childhood and usually clears up on its own. If symptoms persist, call the pediatrician: It could be a sign of recurrent croup or of a more serious airway disorder such as tracheomalacia, which requires specialty care.

A cough that sounds “barky” like a seal or dog can signal croup, a respiratory condition that causes a child’s larynx (voice box) and trachea (windpipe) to swell. Croup is common during childhood and usually clears up on its own. If symptoms persist, call the pediatrician: It could be a sign of recurrent croup or of a more serious airway disorder such as tracheomalacia, which requires specialty care.

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