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When to see a doctor for a cough

When to See a Doctor for a Cough

A child’s cough can be worrisome, especially when it causes discomfort and trouble sleeping. While most coughs will clear up on their own, there are instances where it’s necessary to seek medical evaluation from a pediatrician to ensure your child’s well-being.

What Makes a Child Cough?

Coughing is a common way for the body to clear the throat and airways. 

There are several causes of coughing in children, including:

  • Illness: Coughs often accompany colds, flu, or other respiratory infections
  • Allergies: Exposure to allergens like pollen, dust, or pet dander 
  • Asthma: Inflammation and narrowing of the airways from asthma
  • Environmental irritants: Smoke, strong odors, or pollution can irritate the airways
  • Postnasal drip: Mucus dripping down the back of the throat from the nose or sinuses 
  • Gastroesophageal reflux (GERD): Stomach acid backing up into the esophagus

Understanding these common causes can help parents identify the source of their child’s cough and determine the best course of action.

When to See a Doctor for a Cough

While many coughs resolve on their own, there are times when it’s important to see your pediatrician.

It’s time to see a doctor when any of these symptoms occur:

  • Persistent or worsening cough: If your child’s cough persists for more than a week or worsens, it’s a good idea to consult a doctor. Any signs of bloody or pink-tinged phlegm also warrant a doctor’s visit. 
  • Difficulty breathing: Seek immediate medical attention if your child has difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, or wheezing along with their cough.
  • High fever: A fever of 100.4°F or higher that lasts longer than three days warrants a call to the doctor. It’s recommended that babies younger than two months with a fever of 100.4°F see a doctor immediately. In addition, schedule an appointment if your child develops a new fever on top of an existing cough, as it can be a sign of a new infection.
  • Chest pain: If your child complains of chest pain when coughing or breathing deeply, have them evaluated by your pedestrian. 
  • Vomiting: Call your pediatrician if your child is coughing so forcefully that it leads to vomiting. 

If additional symptoms, such as fatigue, lethargy, dehydration, or rash, persist for several days, seeing your pediatrician for evaluation is recommended. If you’re ever unsure whether your child’s cough requires medical attention, it’s best to err on the side of caution and consult your doctor. 

How to Ease a Cough at Home

For coughs that don’t warrant a visit to a doctor, you can try several simple remedies at home to help soothe your child’s symptoms and make them more comfortable. 

1. Stay hydrated: Encourage your child to drink fluids like water or clear broth to help keep their throat moist and loosen mucus.

2. Use a humidifier: Adding moisture to the air with a humidifier or cool mist vaporizer can help ease coughing and soothe irritated airways, especially during dry winter months.

3. Honey: For children over the age of one, honey can help to ease cough. Give them a teaspoon of honey or mix it with warm water before bedtime.

4. Elevate the head: Elevating your child’s head while they sleep can help reduce coughing at night. You can do this by placing one or more pillows under their head.

5. Avoid Irritants: Keep your home free from airborne irritants, especially cigarette smoke.

Over-the-counter cough medicines are not recommended for young children. Consult your pediatrician before giving your children any medication.

At Stony Brook Medicine, our general pediatricians provide comprehensive primary care, including routine well and sick care for children from birth through age 21, at multiple Suffolk County locations

  • Susan D Walker, MD
    Physician Lead at Stony Brook Advanced Pediatric Care, Center Moriches
    Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics

    Dr. Walker is a pediatrician with over 20 years of experience in primary care. In addition to her roles providing patient care, precepting medical students and residents, and serving as Physician Lead of Stony Brook Advanced Pediatric Care in Center Moriches, she is actively involved in teaching and research at Stony Brook Medicine. She is an affiliate member of Stony Brook’s Center for Compassionate Care, Humanities, and Bioethics and serves as a preceptor in their Medicine in Contemporary Society (MCS) course for first-year medical students.

This article is intended to be general and/or educational in nature. Always consult your healthcare professional for help, diagnosis, guidance and treatment.