Children and Coughs: When to Call the Doctor

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child coughing

You don’t need to ring the pediatrician every time your little one has a tickle in the throat. But sometimes, coughs can signal more serious health problems.

Seek medical help:



For children three months and younger. In general, you’ll want to check in with the pediatrician as soon as very young children appear ill. Minor colds can progress quickly into more serious conditions, such as croup, pneumonia, or bronchiolitis.

When your child’s cough lingers. Occasional coughs shouldn’t cause concern. In fact, they can help your child’s health by removing mucus and other irritating substances from the airways. But a cough lasting two to three weeks should usually prompt a visit to your child's health care provider. Sinus infections, asthma, or even reflux disease may underlie your child’s hacking.

If your child has trouble breathing. Some causes of cough, such as croup, cause a swelling of the airways that restricts oxygen flow. At first, your child may merely feel sniffly and stuffy and have a mild cough. But eventually, the cough begins to sound more like barking, worsens at night, produces fatigue, and causes difficulty eating and breathing.

If your child can’t speak or turns blue, seek emergency medical help. Sometimes he or she may need to stay in the hospital for a few days. Medications such as steroids can reduce swelling and help ease breathing.

When your child’s nostrils flare and breathing muscles move rapidly. During a coughing spell, watch the skin above and below your child’s ribs and above the collarbone. If you see these muscles retract with each breath, it’s time to check in with your health care provider. This indicates your child may have pneumonia, a potentially dangerous infection.

Other signs of pneumonia include a flaring nose, chest pain, fever, and a bluish tint in the lips or nails. Depending on whether your child has a bacterial or viral infection, the health care provider may prescribe antibiotics or other treatments. Check back in with the health care provider if you see signs of worsening infection, such as pain in the joints or bones, vomiting, or swelling.

If a cough comes with a high fever. Mild fevers occur when your child’s body fights off an infection. They tell the health care provider that your little one’s immune system is working to ward off more serious illnesses. You can take simple steps to make your child more comfortable, such as keeping the house cool and giving plenty of fluids.

But when your child’s temperature exceeds 102°F  (39°C),  pick up the phone. At this stage, fever could signal a more serious illness.

Key Takeaways

  • If your infant is younger than 3 months, check in with the pediatrician as soon as your child appears ill.

  • A cough lasting two to three weeks, or one that causes trouble breathing, should prompt a visit to the health care provider.

  • Call the health care provider if there are symptoms of pneumonia, such as flaring nostrils, chest pain, or a bluish tint to the lips or nails.

  • Also call if a cough is accompanied by a fever higher than 102°F (39°C).
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2018 Jan 17
  1. Colds and the Flu. American Academy of Family Physicians, November 2010. (http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/diseases-conditions/colds-and-the-flu.printerview.all.html);
  2. Cough in Children: Tips to Remember. American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, 2013. (http://www.aaaai.org/conditions-and-treatments/library/at-a-glance/cough-in-children.aspx);
  3. Croup. American Academy of Pediatrics, July 1, 2013. (http://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/chest-lungs/Pages/Croup.aspx);
  4. Pneumonia. American Academy of Pediatrics, May 11, 2013. (http://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/chest-lungs/Pages/Pneumonia.aspx);
  5. Children and Colds. American Academy of Pediatrics, July 9, 2013. (http://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/ear-nose-throat/Pages/Children-and-C...;
  6. Signs and Symptoms of Fever. American Academy of Pediatrics, May 30, 2013. (http://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/fever/Pages/Signs-and-Symptoms-of-Fe...;
  7.  Treating a Fever Without Medicine. American Academy of Pediatrics, May 30, 2013. (http://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/fever/Pages/Treating-a-Fever-Without...;
  8. When to Call the Pediatrician: Fever. American Academy of Pediatrics, July 31, 2013. (http://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/fever/Pages/When-to-Call-the-Pediatr...;
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