The sounds of coughing…

Parents often bring in kids with a cough but can’t describe what it sounds like. I sometimes get to hear it if they cough, but Murphy’s Law also says that a child who coughs often throughout the night and frequently during the day will have a 15 minute period of no cough at the exact time the doctor is in the exam room.

cough wheeze stridorIn all seriousness — coughs, regardless of the source — are usually worse at night, which means your doctor won’t usually get to hear the worst of it.

They can also change over time. For instance, croup often starts as a sudden barky cough that over days turns into a wet cough.

I often wish there was one place I could refer parents to so they could see what various coughs sound like, so I decided to put a list together. The internet is ripe with videos, but I have spent many hours watching videos that weren’t very helpful in order to find these. I’m sure I missed some of the best ones, so if you have one that you really like, please post in the comments below.

Regardless of how the cough sounds, if you’re worried about your child’s breathing or the sound of the cough, bring your child in to be seen.

Disclaimer: I have no ties to any of the videos below and am not responsible for any of the opinions or errors within them. Some are professionally done and others are videos parents uploaded. Some have advertisements which I do not endorse.

Croup

The initial seconds of this baby with croup stridor video show the typical croupy cough. At about 0:55 it shows the stridor that many kids with croup have. Stridor is a whistling sound as the baby breathes in (often confused with wheezing, which happens when you breathe out). It is common in croup and is caused by the swelling near the voice box. (Older kids and adults who get the same viruses that cause croup in younger kids often get laryngitis from the swelling near the voice box in a larger neck.)

This ER physician of TheEDExitVideo spends the first couple of minutes discussing what causes croup. At 2:27 sounds of stridor in an otherwise happy looking baby are shown. At 3:44 is a picture showing intercostal retractions (also seen with wheezing or other types of respiratory distress).

TheKidsDr also has a great informational video on croup.

Dry Cough

Dry cough can be from an irritation in the throat, asthma, acid reflux, or any common cold. It can also come from a habit cough (often seen after an illness and goes away with sleep only to return when awake).

If you’re sitting here reading this and not sick, make yourself cough. That’s what a dry cough sounds like.

Laryngomalacia

Laryngomalacia wasn’t on my original list because it isn’t from a virus or bacteria causing illness, but it is a cause of noisy breathing in infants. It is caused by floppy tissues near the voice box (i.e. larynx). Linden’s Laryngomalacia – 3 Months shows this breathing. It is often worst when baby is excited or fussy.

For more information on this (even a video of a scope into the airway), check out Children’s Hospital of Philidelphia’s Laryngomalacia page.

Pneumonia

The cough with pneumonia can sound like a wet cough or dry cough, so no specific videos are for this cause of cough.

The clues to pneumonia include a fever with cough, difficulty breathing between coughs, shallow breathing, shortness of breath with brief exertion, pain in the chest, rapid breathing, or vomiting after cough.

Pneumonia can be caused from viruses and bacteria and can range in severity. Walking pneumonia generally means that the person is not sick enough to require hospitalization.

Some pneumonias lead to severe difficulty breathing and require oxygen support.

Wet Cough

Wet cough can be from pneumonia or bronchitis, but also from postnasal drip with a common cold or allergies.

When kids “cough stuff up” it is usually the postnasal drip being coughed up, not mucus from the lungs coming up. The same is true if they “cough up blood”. This blood is usually from a bloody nose draining into the throat, not from lung tissue. (Note: bloody mucus can be from more serious causes and if your child has no signs of blood in the nose or is otherwise ill, he should be properly assessed by a physician.)

Wheezing

Wheezing is typical in asthma (and bronchiolitis). Many parents mistake the upper airway congestion sound that many kids make with postnasal drip as wheezing.

Wheezing can sound like a whistle as a child breathes out. Ethan’s wheezing shows a baby with noisy breathing without distress. This Wheezing – Lung Sounds Collection video has the sounds one would hear with a stethoscope, but if you put your ear against your child’s back (without a shirt) you might be able to hear them.

If you don’t hear wheezing, but your child is struggling to breathe, it does not mean there is no wheezing! Treat like you would if you hear the wheeze.

Asthma

Asthma Attack in a child starts with information on asthma, then at 1:50 video of what retractions look like.

Asthma attack shows the typical short breathing in phase with long exhale seen with an asthma attack. Also you can see the airway pulling in at the neck (retractions).

Bronchiolitis, often simply called RSV, but caused by many viruses

Bronchiolitis Cough, 3.5 months old shows a baby with a wet sounding cough, typical of bronchiolitis.

Bronchiolitis is a video from the ER physician Dr Oller. He reviews causes of bronchiolitis, how it’s spread, and how it affects the body. At 1:40 he discusses the natural progression of the simple cold into bronchiolitis. At 3:04 there is a picture of how we collect a nasal swab to help with diagnose of any viral illness.

Sick with Bronchilitis shows an infant with suprasternal retractions (sucking in at the base of the neck) and the typical cough associated with bronchiolitis. The man erroneously says “croupy”, see below for croup.

RSV and Infant Treatment shows the best treatment for babies with RSV (or any bronchitis): suctioning. Some babies need this deep suctioning in the doctor’s office or hospital. Others can get by with nasal aspirating at home. I’m not a fan of the bulb syringe for this. Here’s a good review of various aspirators.

Whooping Cough

Pertussis – Whooping Cough: A Family’s Story is an informational video on pertussis with the classic whooping cough in a child and pictures of a newborn with pertussis.

Silence the Sounds of Pertussis – Whooping Cough is a commercial for vaccinating, but it starts with the typical whooping cough sound.

Pertussis (whooping cough) shows a young infant with a cough from pertussis. Young infants do not always whoop, they stop breathing.

8 Year Old With Pertussis (Whooping Cough) shows a typical cough for an older child. Her positioning in front of the toilet shows that these kids often vomit from the force of the cough. The 2nd video from this same girl shows how normal and healthy kids can appear between episodes.

Final words…

Regardless of the sound of the cough or the ability to feel rattling in the chest, how kids are breathing is most important.

Coughs can often sound just awful but if the child is breathing comfortably and well appearing otherwise, it is probably not serious.

Conversely, some kids have a minimal cough but are suffering from difficulty breathing. If they are unable to talk and breathe or eat and breathe they should be seen. If the ribs suck in and out or the breathing is continuously more rapid than normal, they should be seen.

Don’t rely on the cough alone to decide how sick your child is. If they seem uncomfortable breathing it’s time for them to be evaluated.

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It’s not the flu!

I was at the gym today and an otherwise great instructor who seems to know a lot about health was sharing incorrect information about the flu with the class of about 40 people. She said that she had received several texts from other instructors asking her to cover their classes because they were vomiting. Then she went on to say that many at first thought it was food poisoning, but it’s spreading like illness, so it’s the flu, not food poisoning. She made a big deal that the flu is here. Is vomiting from the flu?

She’s only partially right.

Yes…

There’s a stomach bug going around.

It’s not food poisoning.

Influenza is in town.

But this extreme vomiting is not “the flu”

vomiting from the flu
Vomiting can be associated with influenza, but is not the main symptom.

The flu causes predominantly fever, cough, sore throat, and body aches for many days. It can cause vomiting and diarrhea, but those aren’t usually the predominant symptoms. And the flu doesn’t cause just a few hours of extreme vomiting like we’re seeing these days.

Why do I care if people call this stomach bug “flu”?

Runny nose is one of the symptoms of influenza.

The biggest reason I care is that it leads people to make other incorrect assumptions and to get the wrong treatments.

I hear all the time that people had the flu the year they got a flu shot, so they don’t want to get it anymore.

When probed about their illness, it’s usually not consistent with the flu. It was either a cold and cough or a stomach virus.

If they think a common cold or vomiting is from the flu, they’re mistaken.

They need to know that this isn’t the flu.
Cough is one of the most common symptoms of influenza, along with fever, sore throat, and body aches.

Common colds and vomiting are not prevented with the flu shot.

The flu shot has nothing to do with protecting against most cases of vomiting and diarrhea or most upper respiratory tract infections.

Of course there are people who got the flu shot (or FluMist when it was available) who did come down with the flu. They had a positive flu test and symptoms were consistent with the flu. But if they get influenza after the vaccine they tend to have milder symptoms. They tend to not end up in the hospital or dead if they’ve had the vaccine. Yes, even healthy young people can end up very sick from influenza. They can even die. (The FluMist didn’t protect well and was removed from the market due to this.)

We forget about all the times people did get the vaccine and they didn’t catch the flu even with likely exposure. Lack of disease is easy to fail to acknowledge.

We know the flu vaccine is imperfect. But if the majority of people get vaccinated, we can slow the rate of spread and protect us all against influenza most effectively.

We don’t have great treatments for influenza, so vaccinating and using other precautions is important!

Menthol for Sore Throat, Colds and Coughs… Should we use it?

I am often asked about the use of Vick’s Vapo Rub (or other menthol products and refer to all brands in this post).

We see menthol for vaporizer dispensers, in cough drops, and the good ole jar of rub that mom used on our chests when we were sick.

But should we use it?

Cough drops

Menthol is a mild anesthetic that provides a cooling sensation when used as a cough drop. It is basically a local anesthetic which can temporarily numb the nerves in the throat that are irritated by the cold symptoms and provide some relief.

Interestingly, menthol is added to cigarettes in part to numb the throat so new smokers can tolerate the smoke irritation better. Hmmm…

Menthol cough drops must be used as a lozenge and not chewed or swallowed because the menthol must slowly be exposed to the throat for the numbing effect. They are not recommended for young children due to risk of choking.

Science lacks strong evidence, but the risk to most school aged children is low and it is safer than most other cough medicines. For these reasons, I use the “if it seems to help, use it” rule for children not at risk of choking.

Do not let any child go to sleep with one in his mouth. First, he might choke if he falls asleep with it in his mouth. Second, we all need to brush teeth before sleeping to avoid cavities!

Vaporized into the air

When it is put into a vaporized solution, menthol can decrease the feeling of need to cough.

Vaporized menthol should never be used for children under 2 years of age. They have smaller airways, and the menthol can cause increased mucus production, which plugs their narrow airways and may lead to respiratory distress.

Infants can safely use vaporizers (and humidifiers) that put water into the air without any added medications.

The rubs for the skin

We’ve all seen the social media posts supporting putting the menthol rubs on the feet during sleep to help prevent cough. That has never made sense to me. The link provided discusses that it is not a proven way to use the rubs.

Menthol studies show variable effectiveness. It has been shown to decrease cough from baseline (but the placebo worked just as well) and did not show improved lung function with  spirometry tests (but people stated they could breathe better) in this interesting study.  In other words, people felt better, but there really was no objective improvement.

Putting menthol rubs directly under the nose may actually increase mucus production according to a study published in Chest. In children under age 2, this could result in an increase in more plugging of their more narrow airways.

There might be a concern with putting any petrolatum based product in or near the nose. There is a more recent study that does show children ages 2-11 years with cough sleep better with a menthol rub on the chest.

Note: There is a Vick’s BabyRub that does not contain menthol. Its ingredients have not been proven to be effective. Some of the ingredients have their own concerns, but that does not fall into this discussion.

Cautions

Menthol products should never be used in children under 2 years of age. It can actually cause more inflammation in their airways and lead to respiratory distress.

Photo source: Angel caboodle at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons 

Camphor is another ingredient along with menthol in the rubs. It can be deadly if swallowed.

It has been known to cause seizures in children under 36 months when absorbed or ingested in high concentrations.

Menthol rubs in the US contain camphor in a concentration that’s felt to be safe if applied to intact skin in those over 2 years old.

Mucus membranes absorb medicines more readily than intact skin. Do not apply to nostrils, lips, or broken skin.

Do not allow children to handle these rubs. Apply only below their necks to intact skin.

Many people using these rubs experience skin irritation. Discontinue use if this happens.

What Doctors Want You To Know About Treating Colds (but are afraid to say)

When kids suffer from illness after illness all winter long, parents understandably get frustrated. Believe me, as a parent and a physician, I get it. Do you know what doctors want you to know  about treating colds?

This is a change from my usual blogging style because I want to share a Facebook post. I follow a few private Facebook Groups and in one for physicians the following post was shared. I tracked down the original author for permission to share publicly. He was not intending for this to reach a wide audience, but authorized me to share without his real name. He asked that I refer to him as Dr. Nate.

I did not write anything in the post or the comments I posted below, but I see value in it. It highlights the fears and desperation of many parents and the frustration that even doctors have in treating coughs and colds.

It might offend some because of its snarkiness, but it might help parents who are frustrated that their child is sick… again.

As you can see, Dr. Nate answers questions about treating a child’s cold and cough rather bluntly, but from the many, many positive responses, rather accurately. It’s a behind-the-scenes look at what doctors really want to say but can’t.

I’ll first post screenshots of the post and some of the replies (there were also GIFs and more comments of essentially the same “love it” responses) and then I copied the wording below for ease of reading.

Text:

Saw this posted over on ********* and figured this group would appreciate it the most given the snarkiness! ? #ParentingIsHard#TrueStory

“Shamelessly and unapologetically plagiarized from ***********:
And now, for a pediatric URI Q & A session with your friendly neighborhood doctor.
Q: My kid has had a cold for four days now, and he isn’t getting any better! What should I do?
A: most colds spent 4-5 days getting worse and 4-5 days getting better. Call me if it’s been consistently worsening for a week, and we’ll talk. Otherwise, regular supportive care is all we do for a cold.
Q: He’s coughing up green and yellow junk! My friend Becky says that mean he needs antibiotics.
A: normal viral colds involve a full rainbow of sputum colors. Green, yellow, and white junk tells you nothing about whether it’s viral or bacterial, especially in babies.
Q: My baby has had a cold for 3 weeks. What now?
A: probably not really. Your kid can have a cough that lingers for up to 4-6 WEEKS after recovering from a viral infection like RSV. If there’s no fever, and no other symptoms of infection, a cough alone is expected.
Q: But he’s been coughing for 3 weeks!!!
A: You will notice that 3 is less than 4-6. This does not surprise me.
Q: But that’s a long time!
A: tough. #ParentingIsHard
Q: But it’s really interfering with his sleep!
A: Oh, well in that case, let me go get the cure for the common cold and post viral cough that we doctors have been keeping secret. Lol, J/K – #PIH
Q: My friend Becky told me to come to the hospital because my baby had a fever of 99 degrees.
A: First off, in babies, a fever is 100.4 degrees. A temperature of 99 is not legally a fever. Second off, stop listening to Becky.
Q: does my child have a sinus infection?
A: since kids don’t really have sinuses, probably not. They may have small ethmoid sinuses that don’t often get infected, but they don’t have fully formed adult sinuses until they’re middle school aged. Those are the ones that get sinus infections.
Q: does my baby have bronchitis?
A: no. Just, no. Babies can get bronchIOLItis, but almost never get true bronchitis. And if they did, the treatment for bronchitis is not usually antibiotics.
Q: it’s been 30 days and he’s STILL coughing!
A: Wow, parenting really does suck. Nothing to do about it though.
Q: I want antibiotics
A: does your kid have strep, pneumonia, an ear infection, or a UTI? If not, tough.
Q: My kid has a runny nose, a sore throat, and a cough. Becky says it’s strep.
A: WTF did I say about listening to Becky?! Strep doesn’t cause runny nose and cough (except in babies under a year, which is a different entity than strep throat).
Q: My toddler has been sick for the last two months.
A: your kid, at this age, can get a dozen viral respiratory infections a year. Each one can last up to two weeks. You do the math – toddlers are sick almost just as often as they’re well.
Q: what about vitamin C and zinc?
A: MAYBE vitamin C prevents colds in certain subsets of the population, but not for everyone, and once you have a cold they won’t stop it. And don’t give your kid zinc.
Q: (something something essential oils or coconut)
A: the only natural treatment for a cough with good data is honey, and never give honey to a baby under 12 months.
Q: what over the counter medicine is best for a kid with a cold?
A: none of them. They all suck for kids. Tylenol and Motrin are good for fevers in general, but stay away from “cold and flu” medicines.
Q: Well, _I_ had a different experience than one of the above scenarios. I actually DID need antibiotics/ have a kid with a sinus infection/ found a worrisome reason for a lingering cough / got better with essential oils.
A: 1) that was likely a coincidence if it happened at all. 2) this is called an “outlier” and does not nullify the general rule 3) is this Becky? Go away Becky.
Q: All 6 of my kids are sick. What can I do?
A: Mirena, Nexplanon, and Depo-Provera are all good options for you.
Q: You’re a mean pediatrician
A: that’s not a question. But yes, yes I am.”
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Tamiflu status downgraded!

Those of you who follow my blog or are my patients know that I’ve never been a fan of Tamiflu. I’ve written To Tamiflu or Not To Tamiflu and I’ve posted Tamiflu from guest blogger, Dr. Mark Helm. Despite the CDC’s recommendation to use Tamiflu frequently, I rarely prescribe it. And when I do, I often find that the whole course isn’t completed because the kids don’t tolerate it well – usually vomiting, but occasionally they’ve had scary hallucinations. I haven’t seen very much benefit, especially given the cost (and often the difficulty of finding it during peak flu season).

WHO Downgrades Tamiflu

The World Health Organization (WHO) has recently downgraded the status of Tamiflu. The CDC and FDA will have to chime in for the US recommendations, but the WHO is a respected source of medical guidelines and I look forward to a response from the CDC.

Risks vs benefits

As I’ve said before, Tamiflu doesn’t seem to work as well as needed and it has significant side effects. Not all studies done on Tamiflu were published. Only studies showing a little benefit and minimal side effects were considered in making the recommendations to use it. If many studies show no benefit but aren’t published, it makes it seem better than it is. Most studies are done in adults, but studies in children for prevention of flu and treatment of flu also fail to show much benefit.

2013 review of all the studies done in adults found only a 20.7 hour reduction in symptoms (yes, less than one day). In the elderly and those with chronic diseases (among the highest risk adults) no reduction was found. They also found no evidence of decreasing the risks of pneumonia, hospital admission, or complications requiring an antibiotic. This same review also showed more side effects than commonly reported. Nausea, vomiting, and psychiatric side effects are common.

Will the CDC join in?

I hope that the CDC reviews its recommendations for antiviral use before the influenza season hits this year. Until then, plan on getting your family protected with the flu vaccine. It isn’t perfect, but it does help keep us from getting sick and it can help save lives!

 

tamiflu
Tamiflu is an antiviral used against influenza, but there are many questions of safety and efficacy.