Many parents get scared when they hear the barky cough of croup. I’ve even been scared when my own children have it. I know what it is, but their breathing gets so labored that it’s scary.
Sounds of coughing
Parents describe many coughs as “croupy” but most of the time they’re mistaking a wet, mucous-filled cough for croup.
It can be difficult to sort out all the various sounds of coughing, which is why I previously gathered a number of videos into one blog.
The barky cough of croup is distinctive. It’s not a typical wet or congested cough. It’s like a seal bark. The good news is we can often treat it at home.
What is croup?
Croup is a distinctive set of symptoms that occur due to inflammation around a young child’s voicebox in the larynx and trachea.
Many people describe a croupy cough as a seal bark sound. They often make a hoarse or squeaky sound called stridor when they inhale.
Croup often starts suddenly in the middle of the night.
What causes croup?
Croup is usually caused by viruses and tends to be most common in the Fall. The viruses that cause croup are common and usually cause runny nose or congestion and sometimes cause a fever.
One child may get full-blown croup, but another will get a simple cold with the same virus. Some kids seem to get croup often, while others may never get it.
Can older kids get croup?
Croup is most common in kids less than 5 years of age, but older kids can occasionally get it.
Older children and adults tend to get laryngitis with the same viruses that cause croup. Their airways are bigger, so the swelling that occurs near the voicebox isn’t as severe.
Croup is tricky
Croup often looks like a simple upper respiratory tract infection or cold during the day. Nothing to worry about…
In the middle of the night you will hear a sudden barking sound, much like a seal barking. A child with croup looks distressed and very sick at night, but seems much better the next day.
For many kids, it’s just one night of this scary cough, but it can last several nights in others.
Some kids continue to have what is called stridor or trouble talking during the day. Stridor is a hoarse sound that you can replicate by breathing in while tightening your vocal cords. It sounds like a squeak or wheeze as kids breath in. Stridor is due to the swelling near the vocal cords that’s found in croup.
This is a simple yet very helpful video to hear the sound of croup and for management tips.
How is croup diagnosed?
Croup is what we call a clinical diagnosis. No lab or x-ray is needed.
A doctor or nurse will ask questions about various symptoms, and if we hear the classic cough or stridor, it supports the diagnosis.
How is croup treated?
If you recognize croup, there are many at home treatments you can try.
Taking kids outside into the cool night air often helps soothe the airway.
If the weather isn’t appropriate, you can open your freezer door and let them breathe in that air. (This has never been my favorite advice because it means a sick kid will be breathing on the frozen food and then there’s the wasted energy…)
The airway can also be soothed by taking kids into a bathroom, closing the door, and turning the shower to the hottest setting. Just sit in the bathroom – not in the shower.
Usually after 10-15 minutes breathing normalizes.
One thing I learned when my son first had croup: don’t leave the bathroom as soon as breathing calms down. Turn off the shower and just sit there for awhile. We had a rebound croup that was less scary, but unnecessary, when we tried to get him back to bed quickly. Letting the room get closer to the home’s normal air quality before going back into the hall and bedroom is time well spent.
Humidifiers and vaporizers
When we’re sick in the dry weather months, I always recommend adding a vaporizer or humidifier to the bedrooms. This is especially helpful if a child is at risk for croup due to age.
What about medicine?
If kids are uncomfortable, you can use acetaminophen or ibuprofen as a pain reliever. These do not help the cough, but they can help with comfort.
Since steroids decrease inflammation, they are often used when kids get croup. These can only be used with a prescription and your doctor’s instructions. See your doctor if you’re interested in any prescription medicine.
Croup is often mistaken for wheezing, but it is not treated with a bronchodilator like asthma.
The swelling near the voicebox is much different than the smaller airway narrowing that occurs with wheezing, and the bronchodilators (albuterol or levalbuterol) work on the smaller airways.
If kids have asthma, they can wheeze from the same virus that leads to croup, and in that case their asthma medicine helps.
In the hospital or ER setting some kids will get a breathing treatment of epinepherine. This should only be done in a supervised setting so they can be properly monitored.
Croup is usually caused by a virus, so antibiotics don’t help.
There is also something called spasmotic croup, but that also is not treated with antibiotics.
When should kids go to the ER or their doctor?
Since croup is worst at night, most of the kids who need to be seen end up in the ER. If your child has stridor during the day, they can be seen at their usual doctor’s office.
If the above home treatments don’t work after about 15-20 minutes, you should take your child to be seen.
Kids who seem very anxious due to breathing difficulties will also benefit from a proper medical exam and treatment.
Trouble swallowing along with difficulty breathing should be evaluated by a physician.
If you notice that your child seems better leaning slightly forward while sitting, he should be seen.
Any child who is not up to date on vaccines, especially the Hib vaccine, should be seen with labored breathing. Epiglottitis is now rare, thanks to vaccines, but if a child isn’t vaccinated, it is still possible to get this. It can cause stridor, fever, difficulty breathing, and other similar symptoms to croup. Be sure the physician knows your child isn’t vaccinated!