A baby’s cough can range in cause and severity. Seasonal sickness can cause this concerning symptom, as can an underlying condition. Sometimes, though, coughs are just a sign of a growing infant. Recognizing the factors that differentiate between a minor cough that is treatable at home and one requiring medical attention can both keep your baby healthy and alleviate parental anxiety.
The Common Cold
Babies immune systems are still developing, and they can catch a cold quite easily when exposed to adults or other children. Symptoms of the common cold in babies are the same as symptoms in adults, but decreased interest in nursing and irritability can accompany the typical coughing, sneezing, and fever. A cough in a child less than three months old, whatever the cause, should be reported to a doctor. Otherwise, colds should resolve themselves in two weeks or less.
Teething is an ongoing process that starts in the first four to eight months and continues until around three years. Symptoms include mild fever, loss of appetite, biting or gnawing, excess drooling, sleep disturbances, gum inflammation, diarrhea, and even rash near the mouth. Excess drooling can cause coughing or gagging. If, however, a teething baby’s cough is accompanied by other symptoms, such as a high fever, it could signify another illness.
Croup can cause a cough in infants and small children three months to five years old. A viral respiratory illness, croup leads to swelling of the airway and difficulty breathing. High-pitched wheezing or stridor can accompany croup, but it is not the hallmark of the condition. Croup is a seasonal illness that babies most often develop in the fall or winter.
When there is an airway blockage (obstruction) or narrowing (restriction), inhaling produces a high-pitched sound that is often associated with croup and other conditions. Many aspects of infant physiology factor into the symptom, especially the length and aperture of a child’s airway, which is shorter and narrower and more prone to closure. Stridor is usually heard when a child breathes in and should be medically investigated, as it can indicate an emergency.
Another condition of the small airways or bronchioles of the lungs is bronchiolitis, a viral lung infection that, like croup, is most common in the winter. The symptoms of bronchiolitis are similar to those of the common cold, but can last several days or weeks. Any baby can get this infection, but infants born prematurely or with other congenital abnormalities are more likely to develop it.
A cough is often the result of feeding problems, defined as any impairment of a baby’s ability to consume or digest food. The most common feeding problems are overfeeding, underfeeding, spitting up, and throwing up. They often result in minor digestive ailments, but when a cough is present, feeding problems are more serious. Passively spitting up is one of the more common feeding issues to lead to coughing, and can also cause more serious symptoms such as aspiration or choking.
Babies with cystic fibrosis can develop a cough. This congenital, lifelong condition affects the consistency of body fluids in the lungs, digestive system, and other organs. The accumulation of mucosal fluids leads to a productive cough, difficulty breathing, decreased growth, and lung infections.
Pertussis or whooping cough is a rare and nearly eradicated condition that most often affected babies under one year. The bacterial respiratory infection causes painful coughing fits that produce a “whooping” sound. In the middle of the 20th century, pertussis caused thousands of deaths. However, with diligent adherence to early vaccination, the mortality rate for this disease has drastically dropped.
Other respiratory conditions can cause a cough in infants, including infections and inflammation of the upper respiratory tract, ear, nose, or throat. For example, sinusitis often results in a cough in babies, when obstruction of the nasal passages causes breathing difficulties. Conversely, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) can affect the respiratory tract and result in airway obstruction and restriction.
What To Do
Home remedies can address minor causes of coughing in babies, but if the cough lasts more than eight weeks, worsens after a couple of weeks, or if the cause is unclear, it is important to contact a doctor. Regardless of the symptoms, if the baby is less than three months old, consult a physician as soon as a cough develops.