Mother laying on couch comforting sick child Catching a cold is a normal part of being a child. Coughing that comes along with the cold is a key part of the body’s recovery process, even if it feels and sounds as though your child’s symptoms could be getting worse.

Katie Lockwood, MD, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) Primary Care, South Philadelphia, shares ways in which parents can help their child through their cold and soothe their cough.

What is coughing?

Coughing is typical when a child has a cold, and rarely indicates something more severe. “The cough reflex clears out excessive mucus and protects the lungs from pneumonia,” says Dr. Lockwood. “This is one of the reasons why we don’t like to give cough suppressant medications.”

Is coughing normal?

Noisy breathing is normal. Sounds result from vibrations from mucus in the nose or pooling in the lower throat. “This is what sometimes causes the ‘rattling in the chest’ you might hear,” says Dr. Lockwood.

Coughing up mucus is actually a sign the cold is improving. “Coughing up mucus tells us the infection is starting to break up and the child is coughing up the damaged cells, although not all children are able to generate a cough deep enough to cough up mucus, and might swallow it,” says Dr. Lockwood.

Despite what it might look like, “yellow or green sputum (phlegm) is part of the normal healing phase of viral bronchiolitis (usually caused by a cold or flu virus). It does not mean there is a bacterial infection,” says Dr. Lockwood.

A cough can last a while longer than the cold itself. “A post-viral cough can take up to three weeks to disappear as the trachea repairs itself,” adds Dr. Lockwood.

What you can do to help your child cope with their cough

Dr. Lockwood recommends making sure your child is as comfortable as possible when battling a cold.

  • Some children don’t like to eat or drink while sick because of the pain of swallowing and run the risk of becoming dehydrated. So, it's important to keep your child well hydrated throughout their cold.
  • If your child is one year old or older, give them warm apple juice, milk or decaffeinated tea with honey in it. The warm liquid can soothe their throat and loosen the mucus.
  • Help clear their chests with a cool mist humidifier or turn on the hot shower and let them breathe in the steam.

Signs your child should see their primary care provider

“If your child is coughing up blood that would be a concern,” says Dr. Lockwood. “The color and consistency don’t really indicate a level of severity. We are not too concerned about the color, just whether or not there’s blood. For younger children, it’s rare for them to cough and show you any mucus. But if your child is having difficulty breathing or their temperature increases beyond normal, you should contact your pediatrician.”

Contact your pediatrician immediately if your child is exhibiting:

  • Blood in the mucus
  • Harder or faster breathing
  • Using chest or abdominal muscles to breathe
  • Tugging or flaring nostrils while breathing
  • Uncontrolled fever

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