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What is croup?
Croup is a common childhood infection that affects breathing. It is recognizable by a “barking” cough commonly referred to as croup cough. It is caused by a virus and is common during winter and spring months. It usually affects children age 5 and younger, but older children can contract it as well.
The “barking” cough associated with croup is caused by inflammation of the upper trachea as a result of the virus.
Symptoms of croup
In addition to the barking cough, your child may have a fever and a high-pitched noise as they breathe in (stridor). Another sign that it may be croup is that the cough is worse at night. Your child may have these symptoms for 3 to 5 days.
What causes croup?
The most common cause of croup is an infection from the human parainfluenza viruses (HPIVs). HPIVs are a group of 4 viruses. The viruses are airborne and can spread from an infected person’s cough or sneeze. The virus also spreads from hand to mouth when your child touches a contaminated surface or item and then puts his or her hand into their mouth or nose.
How is croup diagnosed?
Your doctor will examine your child’s breathing and listen with a stethoscope. Also, he will look at the inside of your child’s throat and ask about any recent history of illness. A chest X-ray may be required to rule out other reasons for the cough.
Can croup be prevented or avoided?
Good and frequent hand washing is the best way to prevent the virus that causes croup. Additionally, don’t allow your child to share cups, plates, and utensils with others. If you know someone with croup, avoid contact with that person. If your child has croup (or has been diagnosed with a respiratory virus), keep your child home from school and play dates.
Your doctor may prescribe a steroid to help with the trachea inflammation caused by croup. In more severe cases, doctors may prescribe certain breathing treatments. However, most cases of croup can be treated at home. Your child will need more fluids than normal when battling croup. You can help your child breathe easier by exposing him or her to moist air. This can be done with a warm, steamy room (let the shower run in a bathroom with the door closed) or a mist humidifier. Cool air also helps. You can take your child outside in the winter months for a few minutes for cool air.
Also, try having your child breathe through a warm, wet washcloth for a few minutes to help them breathe. If your child is coughing for long periods, he or she may have chest pain. Over-the-counter children’s pain medicine can help ease the pain. Do not give your child aspirin. Call 911 immediately if your child:
- Stops breathing or is having great difficulty breathing.
- Has excessive drooling and difficulty swallowing.
- Starts to turn blue around their fingernails, mouth, or nose.
- Starts to act extremely sluggish and weak.
Living with croup
Caring for a child with croup can be tiring. Since the coughing occurs more frequently at night, you may have to get up with your child several times a night to give them relief. The sound of their coughing also can interrupt the sleep of others in the house. Be prepared for your child to be irritable. The coughing is uncomfortable and interrupts their sleep.
Questions to ask your doctor
- How long is my child contagious once I hear the barking cough?
- Can you build up immunity to the virus that causes croup?
- Can an antibiotic treat the virus that causes croup?
- Can untreated croup cause your child to stop breathing?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.