Does your child have a cough? This time of year, chances are the answer to that question is “Yes!” Coughs can be a major pain: they make kids uncomfortable, disrupt sleep for everyone at home and are one of the most common reasons that parents take the time to bring their kids to the doctor’s office. And while parents are understandably concerned about their coughing child, the good news is that the vast majority of the time, kids’ coughs are due to cold viruses and will go away on their own.
The bad news is that the cough may not go away as fast as we’d all like it to. Cold viruses follow a fairly typical pattern: 3-5 days of fevers, snotty nose and generally feeling knocked down a few pegs, then, as these symptoms all start to improve, the coughing begins. With any one cold, you can expect this cough to last for at least 2 weeks, sometimes longer, before it goes away. And, since there is nothing kids love sharing more than their germs, they will often catch another cold before their cough has a chance to go away completely, starting the clock all over again.
So, that naturally begs the question “Is there anything out there that will make my kid’s cough go away faster?” And the answer to that question is, unfortunately, “nope.” This may be hard to believe given the hundreds of cough medicines available in any pharmacy, but there has never been a single cough medicine that has been shown to decrease coughing in any significant way. A lot of cold medicines also have a combination of ingredients and can include things like acetaminophen (which is also known as Tylenol); if kids are also taking just plain old Tylenol, they can accidentally get too much of it if they take the cold medicine as well. So, since cough medicines don’t really work, and they are potentially risky to give to a child, we as pediatricians do not recommend using them.
That may be discouraging, but if you think about it, it’s actually a good thing. A cough is our body’s natural defense system against germs attacking our respiratory tree. Cold viruses produce mucus in our nose, throat and lungs, and bacteria love mucus. When you cough, you are getting the mucus up and out of your airways before the bacteria have a chance to set up shop, multiply and cause more serious infections like pneumonia. You can certainly try soothing your child’s throat with plenty of fluids, humidified air, and some honey (as long as they are older than 1 year), but completely stopping a cough, even if possible, would probably not be a good idea. This might not help with your family’s sleep deprivation, but hopefully you can take some comfort knowing that your child’s natural anti-bacteria systems are working properly.
Lastly, it’s important to remember that while most coughs are caused by cold viruses, not all coughs are created equal. Kids with asthma who are coughing may need inhaler medicines for their lungs, and in rare cases kids can develop pneumonia that requires antibiotics to treat. If your child has a fever for longer than 5 days or looks like they are having a hard time breathing (breathing fast, sucking in between or below their ribs when breathing, using their belly to breathe, flaring their nostrils or looking blue), please call us right away. If you have any other concerns about your child’s cough (or anything else for that matter!), don’t hesitate to give us a call or make an appointment to come see us!