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Decode Your Baby's Cough

Characteristics Of Different Coughs

And What They Could Mean for Your Child

Your baby is coughing, but what kind of cough is it? Coughing is a symptom warning you of an underlying problem. Coughing is the way your body wards off diseases. The slightest variation in sound, force, and length can help you decipher what’s really bothering your child’s airway. This guide will help you narrow down the possibilities and know when to call their pediatrician.

Dry Cough

Your baby has a dry cough if you do not hear them coughing up phlegm or mucus. There is no crackling or wheezing heard. Dry coughs are associated with irritants in the airway. A dry cough could mean your baby is suffering from the common cold or allergies. Look for other factors like a runny nose and sneezing. If it’s allergies, symptoms could persist if your baby’s environment doesn’t change. Are they exposed to a pet every day? Do you take them for a walk and the pollen count is high? Dry coughs are considered acute, or short-term, because they usually last less than three weeks.

Cough & Wheezing

A cough accompanied by wheezing can be a classic sign of asthma. However, sometimes the only symptom of asthma is a cough. This is called cough-variant asthma. Asthma occurs when airways become inflamed and constricted. The asthma-induced cough usually peaks during exercise, exposure to cold air, exposure to allergens, and at night. Boston Children’s Hospital recommends calling your child’s doctor unless you already have a prescription inhaler or nebulizer.

Chronic Cough

A chronic cough lasts longer than four weeks in children and eight weeks in adults. It can be hard to help your little one shake it because narrowing down the underlying cause is tricky. The Mayo Clinic says the most common reasons for a chronic cough include postnasal drip, asthma, acid reflux, and tobacco use. A cough can also linger after your baby gets over the cold, flu, or pneumonia. When should you worry about a chronic cough? The Mayo Clinic suggests seeing a doctor if the cough interferes with sleep. Harvard Medical School says it’s time to call the doctor if a prolonged cough comes with a fever, shortness of breath, weight loss, chest pain, night sweats, or blood.

Nighttime Cough

Your little one’s cough can worsen at night. When babies and kids lay flat in their beds, congestion in their nose and sinuses drain down their throats. This causes them to cough more. Asthma can also cause your child to wake and cough at night. According to Boston’s Children’s Hospital, airways tend to become more sensitive and irritable at night. Consider elevating your child’s head with a few more pillow to prevent post nasal drip. For babies in cribs, slide a book under one side of their crib mattress. Put their head at the slightly elevated side. 


Pertussis is commonly referred to as whooping cough. The nickname comes from the sound your baby makes after battling the disease for several weeks. After one to two weeks of cold-like symptoms, your baby’s cough transforms. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the cough becomes more rapid and uncontrollable. The cough ends with a high-pitched whoop sound. The CDC says whooping cough is hard to diagnose in the first few weeks when the signature cough is not present.

Your baby likely received the first of many pertussis vaccinations starting at their two month check up. It’s part of the DTaP vaccine. DTaP stands for diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis. Your child will receive a series of these shots through age six.

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)

Respiratory syncytial virus mimics a cold, but can lead to much more serious problems for your baby’s breathing. The CDC says RSV is commonly blamed for causing bronchiolitis and pneumonia in babies under the age of one. RSV symptoms can last one to two weeks. According to the CDC, most babies get the virus before they celebrate their first birthday. RSV cases spike in the fall, winter, and spring. There is currently no vaccine for RSV.


Croup comes with a distinct cough which sounds like a bark. Croup is an infection that causes swelling in the upper airway. Your baby will have a barking cough and noisy breathing. Croup can start out with cold-like symptoms before the distinct characteristics begin. Your baby may also have a hoarse voice. The Mayo Clinic says symptoms are typically worse at night, but croup clears up after a week.

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