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Ask the Experts: Deciphering coughs Ask the Experts

Ask the Experts: Deciphering coughs

My daughter has developed quite the cough. Any idea what it might be?

A: There are five telltale cough sounds that can offer clues to what might be ailing your child:

  • Barking: It may be croup, a viral illness that causes swelling and inflammation of the vocal cords. The cough sounds like a bark and may also be accompanied by stridor—a harsh, high-pitched wheeze—when breathing in.
  • Whooping: It could be pertussis (commonly known as whooping cough), a contagious respiratory illness. It can cause coughing fits in which children are forced to inhale with a loud “whooping” sound as they gasp for breath.
  • Staccato: A repetitive cough with short, staccato sounds is a characteristic sign of the lung infection chlamydial pneumonia, especially in infants.
  • Dry: A persistent, dry cough might be a symptom of asthma, a disease affecting the lungs.
  • Wet: The common cold often produces a wet, productive-sounding cough with mucous or phlegm behind it.

Resist the temptation to medicate children with a cough suppressant, as doing so may do more harm than good in most cases. If your child has had a persistent cough for a week or more, don’t write it off as the common cold. Instead, make an appointment with your pediatrician to determine if something else is going on, especially if your child appears ill and is working hard to breathe.

—Daniel McGee, MD, dad of two and pediatric hospitalist at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan­

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