Monday Medical: Croup and your child
Steamboat Pilot & Today
If your child’s cough sounds like a seal barking or a frog croaking, he or she may have croup.
Croup is fairly common in young children during winter months. It results when the viruses that cause common colds affect a child’s main airway, or trachea. Though it typically resolves on its own, medical attention may be necessary.
Below, Dr. Ron Famiglietti, a pediatrician in Steamboat Springs and a member of the medical staff at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center, shares must-knows about croup.
Croup can affect children and adults of any age. But in young children, it causes a characteristic barking cough.
“The virus causes the larynx and trachea, or tubes to the lungs, to swell,” Famiglietti said. “Because those tubes are pretty narrow in smaller kids, when they cough, it makes that seal bark sound.”
Older children and adults may sound hoarse, lose their voice or exhibit symptoms of the common cold.
When a younger child first contracts croup, initial symptoms are typically a clear runny nose and sometimes a low-grade fever. The cough develops soon after, often worsening at night.
“From there, it sometimes progresses to a stridor, or a noisy, high-pitched sound children make as they breathe in,” Famiglietti said. “That’s the sign that you need to take them to the hospital or the doctor’s office.”
Croup is diagnosed by listening to a child’s cough. “The lungs will sound great as the infection isn’t there,” Famiglietti said. “Instead, it’s in the middle part of the airway.”
Some children are born with smaller airways, which makes them more susceptible to croup. And, while croup can set off a child’s asthma, children with asthma are not more prone to the infection.
To combat that night-time cough, Famiglietti recommends taking the child into a steamy bathroom to breathe humid air. Drinking warm, clear liquids can also help to loosen mucus. Children who are older than a year can be propped up on pillows to aid with sleep.
“Usually, we tell parents to sleep near their kids when they have croup, so they can pay more attention to what their child’s breathing sounds like and know if they start to have more trouble breathing,” Famiglietti said.
Since croup is caused by a virus, antibiotics are not helpful unless a secondary bacterial infection — such as ear infections or pneumonia — develops.
When to see a doctor
Most of the time, croup will run its course in a few days.
“Usually, after three nights, the difficulty breathing resolves, and it turns into a cold, which goes away after about five to seven days total,” Famiglietti said.
But, if a child worsens or develops a stridor while breathing, seek medical attention.
“That breathing tube is really tiny for infants and toddlers,” Famiglietti said. “With a little swelling, it can close off.”
In the emergency room, breathing treatments will quickly relieve the croup and stridor. Medications such as steroids can help reduce swelling and improve breathing. Sometimes, a child is kept in the hospital overnight for observation.
Croup is spread through contact. If people with the virus touch their eyes, nose or mouth, they can pass those germs to someone else. So, practice good handwashing habits.
“Just by good handwashing, you prevent the virus from spreading,” Famiglietti said.
Susan Cunningham writes for UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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