Pramod Narula, M.D., chairman of pediatrics at New York Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn, explains what croup is, signs and symptoms to looks for, and how parents can treat it at home.
My three-year-old has a very bad cough that is keeping him up most of the night. I think he has croup. Is this serious?
Croup is characterized by a loud, harsh, barking cough that is similar to the noise of a barking seal. The cough is often accompanied by fast or difficult breathing. In addition, your child may have cold symptoms like a stuffy or runny nose for a few days. The barking cough is caused by swelling around the vocal cords and windpipe. When the cough mechanism forces air through this narrowed passage, the vocal cords vibrate, resulting in the barking noise.
In most cases, croup is caused by a virus. However, similar symptoms may be caused by bacteria or an allergic reaction. Viral croup is likely to affect children between the ages of three months and five years, particularly those who were born prematurely. The signs and symptoms of croup are usually more severe in children under the age of three because of their smaller airways.
Because most cases of croup are mild, your child probably won't need to see the doctor. The illness can be treated with a few simple home remedies that include running a hot shower to create a steam-filled bathroom where you can sit with your child for a few minutes, humidifying the air with a cool-mist humidifier or taking your child outside during the cooler months. The cool air can shrink the swollen tissues lining the airway and help stop the attack.
Croup resulting from a viral infection usually lasts between three to seven days. If your child has a lot of difficulty breathing, a high fever, or appears to be getting worse, seek immediate medical attention. The doctor may prescribe medication to help open your child's airways. Complications or severe cases of croup are rare, so try not to worry too much if your child develops the illness. Keep in mind that croup lasts for a short time, so your child will be back to normal very soon.