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Croup in Children: Home Care and When to See a Doctor

University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children'sExperts in Children's Health
A little boy peacefully sleeping on a sofa

If your child’s cough sounds different than a usual cough, he or she might have croup. “Croup is a respiratory illness caused by a virus, bacteria, allergies or inhaled irritants that leads to airway swelling and, if severe, difficulty breathing,” says Brian Zack, MD, a pediatrician at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s.

Croup is most commonly seen in children ages 6 months to 3 years old. Younger children are more affected because their airways are smaller.

Symptoms of Croup

Each child may experience symptoms differently, but these are the common ones:

  • A runny nose, sore throat, congestion
  • A cough that develops into a “seal’s bark”
  • Laryngitis or hoarse voice
  • Fever
  • Stridor (a high-pitched sound that is made as your child breathes in or out)
  • Breathing faster than normal or the chest wall pulling in when your child breathes

Usually, the symptoms are worse at night or when the child is active or crying.

“To ease symptoms, keep your child calm,” says Dr. Zack. “Crying makes coughing and noisy breathing worse. Also, moist air may improve symptoms. You can run a cool-mist humidifier in your child’s bedroom, or take your child outside in the cool air.

Most children improve in three to seven days. Croup can start like any other viral upper respiratory infection – so if you suspect croup based on the nature of the cough or noisy breathing, reach out to your pediatrician.

Treatment for Croup

In mild cases, your pediatrician may recommend spending time outside breathing in the cool air, driving around the block with the windows down, or having your child take deep breaths in front of an open freezer. The cold air assists with mild airway changes and should improve the barky cough.

In more moderate or severe cases, or if your child is not breathing well, your doctor may recommend going to the emergency room or even hospitalization. In this situation, your child may need one or more of the following treatments to help reduce airway swelling:

  • Breathing treatments
  • Injections of medications
  • Steroids given by mouth

Additional supportive treatment at home also may include:

  • Using a cool-mist humidifier.
  • Monitoring fluid intake, making sure they are urinating or wetting their diaper as much as they usually do.
  • Treating a fever with acetaminophen or ibuprofen, as instructed by your child’s doctor.
  • Keeping your child as quiet and calm as possible to help decrease the effort it takes to breathe.

Related Links

University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s has the region’s largest coordinated network of pediatric primary care providers, committed to delivering the very best care to children of all ages, including routine immunizations. Find a UH Rainbow pediatric practice near you.