Several conditions may cause a dry cough in a child, including infections, allergies, and irritant exposure. Dry coughs may occur independently or with other symptoms such as fever or fatigue.
Keep reading for more information on what can cause a dry cough in children, how to treat it, and when to speak with a doctor.
Coughing is a natural defense mechanism the body uses to clear the airway and remove microbes and foreign objects.
People often produce dry coughs, also called nonproductive coughs, to clear an itch or irritation in the throat. These coughs are usually symptoms of an underlying condition in the upper respiratory tract.
Many things can cause dry cough in children, and its treatment depends on the cause. Taking note of other symptoms accompanying the cough can help identify its cause.
If a child feels like they are struggling to breathe, their caregiver should contact emergency services immediately.
In some cases, a caregiver can help prevent a dry cough by taking preventative measures. These may include getting the child appropriate vaccinations or avoiding exposure to allergens or irritants.
If a caregiver is not sure what is causing the cough, they may want to talk with the child’s doctor to get a diagnosis.
Types of infections
Viral infections invade the cells in the airway. This causes irritation and inflammation that may lead to coughing. A child may catch a virus from inhaling particles in the air or through close contact.
Flu is an infectious respiratory disease that is more dangerous than the common cold for children, especially those younger than 5 years old. The influenza virus causes it.
A child may develop pneumonia from a virus, bacteria, or fungi. Globally, pneumonia is the leading cause of death among children who are past the newborn phase but under 5 years old.
While death from pneumonia is less common in the United States, pneumonia is still one of the most common reasons children get hospitalized.
- rapid breathing
- grunting or wheezing
- chest pain, or pain while coughing
Note: While the cough that occurs with pneumonia may be dry, in some cases it may sound wet or appear as a productive cough.
COVID-19 is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, a type of coronavirus. Symptomatic COVID-19 appears to be less common and less severe in children.
A child may or may not show symptoms similar to those of the common cold and flu. They may have pneumonia, with or without showing any symptoms.
The cough that comes with COVID-19 is often continuous. A child may cough frequently for more than an hour or have three or more coughing episodes within 24 hours.
Bronchiolitis is a common viral infection in infants and children younger than 2 years old. Swollen small airways (bronchioles) make breathing difficult, causing wheezing and coughing.
According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, preschool children who go to daycare can develop roughly eight viral respiratory infections in a year. Typically, each infection will last for 10 days.
If the child’s cough occurs toward the end of an upper respiratory infection, such as a cold, and clears within 1–2 weeks, a parent or caregiver typically does not need to do anything specific to treat the cough.
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However, if the cough is dry or nonproductive, a caregiver should ensure that the child drinks plenty of fluids and warm drinks to help soothe their throat.
Other methods a caregiver can try include:
- using a humidifier in the child’s room
- running a hot shower with the door and windows or vents closed and having the child sit in the room
- opening a window or freezer to provide cold air for the child to breathe in if croup is causing the cough
A caregiver can also try giving the child honey, but only if the child is 12 months or older. Infants below this age do not have immunity to certain bacteria that may be present in honey.
Vaccines are the best way to prevent influenza and COVID-19 infections. Vaccines protect a child against illnesses, improve their immune response, and protect them against complications.
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Asthma is a chronic disease that occurs when the lung’s airways become inflamed. Asthma can be life threatening. A parent or caregiver should seek immediate medical attention if the child’s symptoms appear to be worsening.
They should also seek emergency medical help if the following occurs:
- retractions, or fast breathing where the skin sucks in around the chest plate or rib bones when the child inhales
- blue coloring in the face, fingernails, or lips
- flaring, which is when the nostrils move rapidly
- an expanded chest does not deflate when the child exhales
- an infant does not recognize or respond to a caregiver
- the ribs or stomach move in and out quickly
To treat asthma in children, a doctor or allergist may prescribe medication for quick symptom relief and long-term control.
The medication usually comes in the form of an inhaler. A person may also use a nebulizer. A healthcare professional can teach the caregiver and child how to use this device.
Children may inhale irritants in the environment that irritate the airway and cause inflammation, leading to dry cough. These include:
- air pollution
- cigarette smoke
- fumes and vapors
- dry air
Removal of the irritant usually resolves the cough. However, a child repeatedly exposed to irritants may develop a chronic cough.
Allergies can cause a dry cough in children. A caregiver can help a child use:
- over-the-counter (OTC) antihistamines
- nasal sprays
If the allergies are severe, a child may need allergy shots.
A caregiver should seek emergency medical help if a child experiences:
- severe hives
- abdominal pain
- difficulty breathing
- tightness in the throat
- rapid heartbeat
Acid reflux and GERD
GERD in children may cause dry cough, problems in swallowing, and asthma symptoms. Treatment depends on the severity of the condition.
Doctors may advise parents to try lifestyle changes like avoiding certain foods, eating smaller meals, and changing sleep position.
Some children present with a cough with no medical diagnosis and do not respond to treatment. Doctors previously labeled it psychogenic, habit, or tic cough.
This rare condition is often diagnosed late, after prolonged attempts to diagnose and treat a child’s chronic cough. Most happen in children from 8–14 years old.
A 2020 study found that behavioral therapy is a successful treatment for the condition.
It is typical for infants and young children to place things in their mouths. However, small objects may lodge in a child’s airway, and coughing may be their body’s attempt to remove the object.
If a child shows signs of choking, caregivers should immediately perform the Heimlich maneuver or seek immediate help.
Signs of choking include:
- inability to cry or make sounds
- struggling to breathe
- chest and ribs pulling inward
- becoming reddish to bluish in the face
A doctor will examine the child and ask questions about other symptoms and how long they have had the cough. During the exam, the doctor or other healthcare professional will evaluate the child’s breathing, vital signs, lungs, and other areas of the body.
Often the sound of the child’s cough, physical exam, and additional symptoms will be enough to determine the cause of the cough.
In some cases, such as allergic reactions, allergy tests may be required to determine the cause. A child may need to see an allergist for treatment in these cases.
A caregiver should take their child in for a medical evaluation if they have a cough that lasts longer than 2–3 weeks. Other reasons to seek medical care include the following signs and symptoms:
- a high fever or any fever in an infant
- rapid breathing
- trouble breathing or catching breath
- coughing up blood
- signs of dehydration
- a whooping sound when the child coughs
- a wheezing sound when the child breathes
A caregiver should also seek emergency care for a child if they show signs of a severe asthma attack or severe allergic reaction.
If a caregiver is ever unsure about what is causing the cough or is concerned, they should take the child to see a doctor or other healthcare professional, such as a physician assistant (PA) or nurse practitioner (NP).
There are several potential causes of a dry cough, including infections, allergens, pollutants, and asthma.
If a child has a dry cough, a caregiver may be able to monitor and treat the cough at home.
If a child has a known underlying condition, treating that condition should help the cough clear. However, if a caregiver does not know what is causing the cough, or a child has a high fever or other symptoms, they should take the child to see their doctor.