What Is Croup Cough?
Croup cough is a viral infection that is particularly common in infants and children, especially during cold weather. It causes patients to make a barking sound when they cough. The barking sound that this cough makes is different from the common cough and can be quite serious if it’s not treated quickly. It starts with mild common cold symptoms that worsen over time and without treatment, it can lead to more serious conditions like pneumonia and ear infections (x).
Croup cough causes a change in breathing patterns, triggering a distinct barking cough and a hoarse voice. This happens because the vocal cords restrict. Croup develops as a result of an infection in the windpipe, bronchial tubes and the vocal cords. There are two types: infectious or spasmodic. Infectious croup is caused by a virus, bacteria or other type of germ. However, spasmodic croup is very similar. It’s triggered by an infection, but the infection does not cause it. It may result from allergies and usually comes on very suddenly without a fever. Infectious croup cough is more common, especially in children younger than 6. Spasmodic usually impacts children between 3 months and 3 years old (x).
The viral infection responsible for croup in young children could cause a normal, mild cough or sore throat in adults. But in very rare cases, adults may experience the same persistent symptoms as a child (x). Croup in infants and toddlers is scary because they are unable to communicate their experience. It is also possible for adults to contract it and since the condition is very contagious, it is important to take preventive action, especially with a little one at home.
Symptoms of Croup Cough
In the beginning, a child with infectious croup cough has symptoms similar to the common cold, such as nasal congestion, fatigue and a runny nose. It can also cause a low grade fever and sore throat. But over time, the virus starts to progress and spread to the lungs. Then it causes inflammation and the vocal cord and windpipe start to narrow. These issues then lead to the distinct, pronounced barking cough (x). Common croup symptoms include:
- Barking cough
- Runny nose
- Nasal congestion
- Voice loss
More complex symptoms of an infectious croup can include difficult or irregular breathing patterns that cause the chest to retract abnormally in the struggle. Because there is less oxygen flowing through the blood, the patient may have pale skin and bluish lips and fingernails.
Usually the symptoms are more severe and more audible at night and may wake the child from sleep. The symptoms may seem better in the morning, but they tend to progress throughout the day, alternating from mild to severe. Most patients improve within three to seven days. However, the condition is usually more serious in children under the age of 3 (x, x).
Causes of Croup Cough
In most cases, croup cough is caused by a virus, specifically the human parainfluenza virus (HPIV). Both types of HPV—HPIV-1 and HPIV-2—can cause this condition. They can cause both upper and lower respiratory symptoms (x). Other viruses that can cause croup include respiratory syncytial virus, metapneumovirus, influenzas A and B, adenovirus, coronavirus and mycoplasma (x).
Usually the virus infects the nose and throat first, then spreads to the larynx and trachea. The throat swells and it becomes harder for air to enter. The patient breathes quickly and deeply to get air, which causes the barking cough. It spreads through mucus and droplets released into the air by sneezing or coughing (x). Be careful touching items that may be infected. Only touch the face, mouth and eyes with clean hands because croup can spread very easily via contact.
Typically, bacterial croup cough affects the same areas as the viral infection. However, most of the time it is more severe. In most cases, it is a secondary Staphylococcus infection, but it may be a result of other bacteria. For example, S. pyogenes, S. pneumoniae, Haemophilus influenzae and Moraxella catarrhalis can also cause croup cough (x).
Croup is most common in young children between 6 months and 3 to 5 years old. Infants are at a high risk of developing this condition. On average, the peak is around 24 months. Although adults can develop croup cough, children are at a much higher risk simply because their airways are smaller and they are not as rigid. This makes it more likely for the airways to narrow and close when they become irritated and swollen (x).
Additionally, research shows that an allergic reaction may also trigger croup cough. If a patient is exposed to pollen or allergens, it can trigger intense coughing, as well as sneezing and a runny nose. It may also develop from food allergies. This can be very serious, potentially resulting in a life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis (x).
Other Risk Factors
According to experts, babies born prematurely and children with asthma are more likely to experience more severe symptoms of croup cough (x).
Treatment for Croup Cough
Treatment options depend on the specific type of respiratory issues the patient exhibits. Most cases are mild and only require home remedies for successful treatment. Natural remedies may be effective and may help the symptoms from getting worse. But more severe cases may require medical treatment with medication. However, some medications may cause side effects (x, x).
Cool and Humid Air
Inhaling moist air can help ease respiratory problems. To get immediate relief when the symptoms are rough, go into the bathroom, turn on the shower and shut the door to trap the steam. Breathing in moist air may stop the coughing. Another option is to use a cool mist humidifier in the patient’s bedroom while they sleep. It will continue to release moist air throughout the night, making it easier for the patient to sleep (x, x).
Parents can expose their child directly to cold air. Take the child outside on a cold night for a few minutes to breathe in the chilly air. Taking a short walk or going for a car ride with the windows open for a few minutes may provide some relief. But be careful on very cold nights. Dress warm and wrap the child in a blanket. This may not be as helpful during warm summer months, but parents can also hold the child directly in front of an open freezer for a few minutes. Remember that children will not get sick from being outside in the cold, but it can help relieve some of their symptoms drastically (x).
Maintaining proper hydration and drinking lots of fluids throughout the day is vital. Just like a common cold patient, it is very important to stay hydrated with croup cough. Keeping the body hydrated helps prevent dehydration from a fever. Breathing faster also causes the body to lose moisture. Proper hydration also makes the body stronger to fight the infection. Warm liquids like herbal tea and soup helps loosen the sticky mucus in the chest. It can also relax the vocal cords, which may reduce the barking cough. Avoid foods that increase mucus like sugar, processed foods and dairy products (x, x).
If the nasal passages become blocked from mucus, it can be even more difficult to breathe. Using saltwater nasal drops every few hours can help ease breathing. Then gently suction with a bulb syringe to clear the nasal passages (x).
Rest is essential for croup and any kind of common cold. Patients with croup should avoid reclining in a flat position, since it can stifle breathing. Prop the head up with placing pillows underneath. Keeping the head higher will make it easier to breathe and also help drain mucus (x).
Create a Calm Atmosphere
As a parent, it is important to remain calm in order to comfort the child. A barking cough can be stressful for a parent to hear, but it is important to try to maintain a calm atmosphere in the house. Added stress and discomfort can make breathing difficulties even worse. If a parent is upset, the child may get upset as well and start to cry, which makes breathing more difficult (x).
If the case is severe, a doctor may recommend medication. Severe cases may even require hospitalization. However, usually doctors only prescribe a dose of oral dexamethasone. It is a corticosteroid and according to research, it can help prevent the need for further medical attention. With its anti-inflammatory properties, dexamethasone can help reduce breathing difficulties and the severity of the symptoms (x).
Supplements for Immune Function
Supplements can help boost the immune system so that the body can fight off viral infections such as croup cough. Always speak to a doctor before starting a supplement regimen. They are not intended to treat medical conditions. Instead, they may have a positive effect on overall health.
There are several different varieties of the Sambucus tree and elderberry is a term that refers to all of them. The most common is the European elderberry or the black elder. Elderberry extract can be a powder, syrup, juice, chutney, jam or elderberry wine. Researchers suggest that it can fight cold and influenza viruses. It is also packed with antioxidants that can reduce inflammation.
As a dietary supplement, the recommended dosage for elderberry extract powder is 1,000 to 3,000 mg (½ tsp to 1 ½ tsp) daily. Consult a doctor for approval before taking the supplement.
This is one of the most common home remedies for the flu and the common cold. Vitamin C deficiency can cause poor immune function, low energy levels and even heart complications. Vitamin C keeps the immune system strong so that patients can fight off illnesses, including cold and flu viruses, similar to those that cause croup cough. It is also a very powerful antioxidant that maintains immune function.
One way to ensure adequate amounts of Vitamin C is with supplements. The recommended dosage for ascorbic acid / Vitamin C is 1,000 mg a day after consulting a physician.
This trace mineral is the second most abundant in the body. Zinc deficiency increases the risk of illness. It can help boost and strengthen the immune system. It can also prevent the common cold and combat inflammation in the body. Since allergies can trigger croup cough, zinc may help eliminate this risk factor. It protects against autoimmune conditions, such as allergies.
The body does not produce zinc naturally, so it’s important to get enough of it through diet or supplements. As a dietary supplement, take zinc gluconate in daily 225 to 450 mg doses, if a doctor approves it.
N-Acetyl L-Cysteine (NAC)
N-acetyl L-cysteine (NAC) comes from the amino acid L-cysteine. It is present in high-protein foods, including eggs, turkey, yogurt, cheese, legumes and chicken. Paired with glutamine and glycine, it helps produce antioxidants by replacing glutathione, a very important natural antioxidant. It also helps loosen mucus in the lungs, which may help treat respiratory conditions. It also helps boost the immune system and interferes with virus replication.
As a dietary supplement, take pure N-acetyl L-cysteine (NAC) in 600 mg doses up to three times a day, unless a physician recommends a different dosage.
The Bottom Line
Croup cough is a respiratory condition that mainly affects young children between the ages of 6 months and 5 years. It results from either viruses or bacteria, but usually it is a viral illness. Croup cough is very contagious. The symptoms may start out similar to a common cold, but they can progress into more serious symptoms, specifically a distinct barking cough. Usually the symptoms are worse at night and progress throughout the day. The illness usually lasts between three and seven days.
To prevent the condition from spreading, make sure to wash hands frequently and avoid contact with people with the infection. Usually croup cough is a mild illness and most of the time, parents can treat it at home. Exposing the child to cold or humid air may help ease coughing and relieve discomfort. It’s also important to keep the body hydrated to prevent dehydration from a fever. When croup cough does require medication, doctors may prescribe oral dexamethasone, a corticosteroid. There are also supplements that can help strengthen the immune system to fight off viruses and prevent illness. Always consult a doctor before starting a supplement regimen.