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What It Means When Your Kid Has A Barking Cough

What it sounds like, and when to call the doctor.

You could have sworn when you tucked your child into bed at night that they were a lovely little human being. So why does it sound like there’s suddenly a seal that’s snuck into their bedroom? Chances are, your child is probably sick, so sure, you expect some sniffling or a stuffy nose. But what gives with the barking cough in kids? Here’s how to make that honk go away.

What does a barking cough sound like?

The sound is absolutely unmistakable. Unlike a cough, (which sounds like, you know, a cough), a barking cough sounds exactly like that — barking. And the first time you hear your child honking can be pretty petrifying. “A barking cough sounds like a dog or seal barking,” Denise Scott, a pediatrician, pediatric endocrinologist, and certified culinary medicine specialist with nearly 30 years of experience tells Romper. “It’s a higher-pitched, dry, hoarse, almost honking cough, and is not wet or productive.” Unlike other coughs, which might bring up phlegm, a barking cough won’t cause your kid to produce any green mucus; it’ll just be a dry cough.

What is croup?

If your child has a barking cough, croup may be the culprit. “Croup is a respiratory illness of the upper airways (the larynx and the trachea),” explains Dr. Natalie Thoni, a board-certified pediatrician at Orlando Health Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children. “Children with croup often have a barking cough, hoarseness, and stridor, which is a high-pitched squeaking noise heard when your child breathes in.” The kicker is that croup is often worse at night, researchers found, and many kids with the illness might have symptoms such as a runny nose, barky cough, and stridor when they are upset.

Treatment options for croup can vary depending on how sick your little sweetie is. Many cases of croup are mild and are treatable at home, Thoni says. “Mild croup can be treated at home with humidified air, plenty of fluids, and Tylenol to treat fevers,” she says. “Signs of more severe croup that would require prompt evaluation would be if your child is having difficulty breathing, using their neck or stomach muscles every time they breathe in, stridor even while at rest, or difficulty swallowing/drooling.” If your child is having problems breathing, you should seek medical attention immediately.

What is the difference between a barking cough in babies and a barking cough in kids?

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Although kids of all ages can get croup, it occurs more frequently in babies than older kids. It can be scary if your 5-month-old has a barking cough. “Croup is more common in babies is because the barking sound and characteristic symptoms (such as stridor) are a result of narrowing of the upper airway,” Dr. Krupa Playforth, a board-certified pediatrician, tells Romper. “Because younger infants naturally have smaller airways, it takes less inflammation to obstruct them. As children grow older, their airways grow as well, and this means that the same viruses that cause a croupy cough in a younger infant are less likely to lead to those specific symptoms in an older child, although the virus can cause related symptoms such as nasal congestion and postnasal drip.”

Is a barking cough in kids a symptom of Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) or Covid?

A barking cough is a telltale sign of croup. But what about RSV or Covid? Unfortunately, these respiratory illnesses can also lead to a concerning-sounding cough. “Croup is caused by a viral infection and there are many viruses that can cause croup,” Thoni explains. “The same viruses that can cause the common cold can also cause croup, and the most common virus associated with croup is parainfluenza virus. However, RSV and Covid are both viruses that can also lead to croup.”

“Both RSV and Covid also cause lower airway disease, meaning these affect the lungs and can cause wheezing,” Scott adds. “If a child has croup and contracts RSV or Covid additionally, this can lead to significant breathing difficulty or respiratory distress, and a much more severe illness.” So yes, RSV or Covid infections could lead to croup in kids.

How can I tell the difference between a dry cough and wet cough?

To understand the difference between a dry and wet cough, you’ll first need to know why we cough in the first place. Researchers have found that coughing is one of the body’s natural defense mechanisms, meant to protect the respiratory tract from inhaling icky stuff like smoke, dust, or other debris that could be dangerous. But all coughs aren’t created equal, and they don’t all sound the same or perform the same funtions. “Dry, or non-productive coughs are not associated with mucus production,” Playforth explains. “They can happen for a variety of reasons, allergies, exposure to environmental irritants (eg smoke), or infection.” If you’ve ever felt a tickle in your throat, that’s usually a dry cough. “Dry coughs are often seen when children have allergies or asthma, as these things can cause causing irritation in the airways leading to a dry cough,” Thoni points out.

When a cough is caused by mucus production and is associated with nasal congestion or a postnasal drip, it’s categorized as a wet cough. “Wet coughs are often deeper coughs as mucous is being brought up from the lower airways in the lungs,” Thoni continues. “Wet coughs are often seen when children have respiratory illnesses.”

If your honey is honking, there’s a good likelihood that they may have croup or other respiratory illness. While most instances of a barking cough in kids will resolve with home treatment, they do warrant a call to the pediatrician.

Studies referenced:

Bjornson, C., Johnson, D., (2013) Croup in children, PubMed, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3796596/

Andrani, F., Aiello, M., Bertorelli, G., Crisafulli, E., Chetta, A. (2019) Cough, a vital reflex. Mechanisms, determinants, and measurements, PubMed, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30657115/

Experts:

Dr. Denise Scott, M.D., a pediatrician, pediatric endocrinologist, and certified culinary medicine specialist with nearly 30 years of experience

Dr. Natalie Thoni, M.D., a board-certified pediatrician at Orlando Health Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children

Dr. Krupa Playforth, M.D., a board-certified pediatrician