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Is That Cough Croup?

Anytime your child becomes ill, it can be terrifying. Respiratory illnesses are especially worrisome and are known to pack some of the most alarming symptoms. If your child has ever been diagnosed with Croup, you know just how unsettling those symptoms can be. Learn the warning signs, treatment, and prevention of croup from top experts to help your baby stay healthy and content.

What is Croup?

As if you didn’t have enough to worry about, there is yet another illness to keep on your radar. Croup is a viral illness that affects the windpipe and voice box, causing inflammation that narrows the airways. This makes for a loud, barking cough similar to that of a seal. A child with croup will usually present with cold or flu-like symptoms, such as body aches and fever. The telltale indicator that croup virus is the culprit, as opposed to other infections, is the harsh, barking cough and difficulty breathing, which usually peak overnight.

“This is a child who has a cold, maybe a little bit of a fever, and in the middle of the night, you hear what sounds like a seal barking. It really sounds like you have a seal in your house. The child wakes up, barking like a seal. The reason they are doing that is because there is some narrowing in their windpipe that's infected from the virus,” explains Pediatric Otolaryngologist Dr. Nina Shapiro, MD.

Croup can appear seemingly all at once and without the warning signs of an existing cold, or include cold-like symptoms that persist once the croup infection has subsided.

Who is at Risk?

Croup is most frequently seen in infants six months to eighteen months in age, when the airways are still growing–making them more vulnerable during swelling and inflammation.

Croup becomes uncommon after the age of six years when the respiratory system becomes larger, firmer, and more developed.

Older children and adults are not immune to the illness, which is contagious, but are unlikely to experience the severe cough and difficulty breathing. Because their respiratory systems are larger, firmer, and more developed, inflammation caused by croup doesn’t cause such drastic, noticeable breathing issues like it does for infants. Instead, croup in older children and adults presents as a sore throat and common cough.

Croup is highly contagious and easily spread through coughing, sneezing, and contact with a contaminated surface– just like the common cold. Outbreaks are frequent in the winter months, but not exclusively.

In most cases, croup is considered to be one of the more mild viral infections, where the symptoms can definitely outweigh the true severity of the illness. A child with croup should nevertheless receive treatment by a medical professional and their home care provider.


It’s always a good idea to have your child evaluated by a medical professional when they’re feeling under the weather. Because Croup is a virus and not a bacterial infection, don’t expect a prescription for antibiotics. Treatment options are still available, however, to ease the discomfort and fear that croup can cause.

  • See Your Doctor: Have your child evaluated to make sure that their symptoms are Croup and not something more serious.
  • Medication: Steroid medication and inhaled adrenaline are usually prescribed to decrease inflammation and help the child breathe more easily until the virus clears up. Fever reducers should be used to bring down the child’s temperature.
  • Humidity: Run a hot shower to steam up your bathroom and let your child breathe in the humid air for 15-20 minutes.
  • Cool Air: Run a cool mist dehumidifier in your child’s bedroom once their attack has subsided to help them get through the rest of the night. Taking your child out into the cool, night air if possible can also relieve their coughing.
  • Rest: Because Croup is a virus, the body will get rid of it on its own with plenty of rest and proper nutrition.
  • Stay Calm: Difficulty breathing combined with a strange, loud cough can make a child panic. Try to present a relaxed front so that your child also calms down.
  • Emergency Room: If your child does not respond to the above measures and is still struggling to breathe, seek medical attention right away.
  • Avoid Cough Medication: Cough medications can make your child drowsy and add to the effort needed to breathe properly.

“Any child who has had a hard time breathing at night should see the pediatrician in the morning and if the breathing does not improve, they should be taken to the Emergency Room,” says pediatrician Dr. James Varga, MD. “Fortunately, today we don't see the severe type of croup that we did years ago.”

For more information on viruses, find out what top experts advise on How to Help Your Child Avoid Colds and Viruses.


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