Coughing is the body’s way of removing foreign material or mucus from the lungs and upper airway passages or of reacting to an irritated airway. Coughs have distinctive traits you can learn to recognize. A cough is only a symptom, not a disease, and often the importance of a cough can be determined only when other symptoms are evaluated.
For information about coughs in teens and adults, see the topic Coughs, Age 12 and Older.
A productive cough produces phlegm or mucus (sputum). The mucus may have drained down the back of the throat from the nose or sinuses or may have come up from the lungs. A productive cough generally should not be suppressed; it clears mucus from the lungs. There are many causes of a productive cough, such as:
- Viral illnesses. It is normal to have a productive cough when you have a common cold. Coughing is often triggered by mucus that drains down the back of the throat.
- Infections. An infection of the lungs or upper airway passages can cause a cough. A productive cough may be a symptom of pneumonia, bronchitis, sinusitis, or tuberculosis.
- Chronic lung disease. A productive cough could be a sign that a lung disease is getting worse or that your child has an infection.
- Stomach acid backing up into the esophagus . This type of coughing may be a symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and may awaken your child from sleep.
- Nasal discharge (postnasal drip) draining down the back of the throat. This can cause a productive cough or make your child feel the need to clear his or her throat frequently. Experts disagree about whether a postnasal drip or the viral illness that caused it is responsible for the cough.
A nonproductive cough is dry and does not produce sputum. A dry, hacking cough may develop toward the end of a cold or after exposure to an irritant, such as dust or smoke. There are many causes of a nonproductive cough, such as:
- Viral illnesses. After a common cold, a dry cough may last several weeks longer than other symptoms and often gets worse at night.
- Bronchospasm. A nonproductive cough, particularly at night, may mean spasms in the bronchial tubes (bronchospasm) caused by irritation.
- Allergies. Frequent sneezing is also a common symptom of allergic rhinitis.
- Exposure to dust, fumes, and chemicals.
- Asthma. A chronic dry cough may be a sign of mild asthma. Other symptoms may include wheezing, shortness of breath, or a feeling of tightness in the chest. For more information, see the topic Asthma in Children.
- Blockage of the airway by an inhaled object, such as food or a pill. For more information, see the topic Swallowed or Inhaled Objects.
Coughs in children
Children may develop coughs from diseases or causes that usually do not affect adults, such as:
- Infection of the lower respiratory system (such as bronchiolitis or respiratory syncytial virus [RSV]).
- Blockage of the airway by an inhaled object, such as food, a piece of a balloon, or a small toy. For more information, see the topic Swallowed or Inhaled Objects.
- Exposure to secondhand smoke from parents or caregivers who smoke.
- Emotional or psychological problems. A dry, nonproductive “psychogenic cough” is seen more frequently in children than in adults.
Many coughs are caused by a viral illness. Antibiotics are not used to treat viral illnesses and do not change the course of viral infections. Unnecessary use of an antibiotic exposes your child to the risks of an allergic reaction and antibiotic side effects, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, rashes, and yeast infections. Antibiotics also may kill beneficial bacteria and encourage the development of dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
A careful evaluation of your child’s health may help you identify other symptoms. Remember, a cough is only a symptom, not a disease, and often the importance of a cough can only be determined when other symptoms are evaluated. Coughs occur with bacterial and viral respiratory infections. If your child has other symptoms, such as a sore throat, sinus pressure, or ear pain, see the Related Topics section.