How to Recognize the Sound of a Croup Cough in Your Child

Baby Coughing
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When it comes to children's health, there are a few common scenarios that can be quite scary for parents. Among these is the sound of a croup cough. However, as scary as it may sound, when you understand what is happening, it becomes easier to manage.

The Sound of Croup Cough

Many upper respiratory infections can cause a cough and parents often use the term "croupy" to describe those coughs, but there is really only one croup cough sound.

What does it sound like? Most people describe a croup cough as sounding like a barking seal.

But for those of us who have never heard a barking seal, the above description isn't necessarily helpful.

A croup cough has also been described as the yelping of a fox or the barking of a dog. In 1814, John Cheyne, a British doctor, described a croup cough as a "most unusual cough, rough and stridulous." Other people use words like "deep" and "brassy" to describe the croup cough sound. That a cough is different or unusual is one of the best ways to know that you are dealing with croup.

Other distinctive features associated with croup may include:

  • Stridor, a high-pitched sound that is often mistaken for wheezing
  • Feeling much better once they wake up in the morning, only to have symptoms become worse again the next night
  • A hoarse voice or cry
  • Waking in the middle of the night with this type of an unusual cough (although some kids will have a runny nose, a mild fever, and a milder cough beforehand)

You may want to consider watching a few videos on YouTube of parents who've filmed their children who have croup, or medical experts who can help you identify the cough's signature sound. Just search for "a croup cough," and listen to the sound of the cough through the audio which may help you figure out whether your child's cough is similar. 

Call or see your pediatrician right away if you think that your child has croup. Although many children have mild croup symptoms, croup can sometimes cause more serious, life-threatening infections.

What Else Sounds Like Croup Cough?

What else can sound like a croup cough? Fortunately, not too much—but there are other conditions that may seem similar.

In the old days, pediatricians would often worry about epiglottis when a child presented with a cough and stridor. (Epiglottis is an infection of the small flap of cartilage that's attached to the end of the tongue and closes when you swallow to prevent food from getting into the lungs.)

Thanks to the Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) vaccine, the epiglottis is not something that kids get very often anymore.

Other conditions that can mimic croup include inhalation of a foreign body, trauma, angioneurotic edema (swelling of the airway), and bacterial tracheitis.

Diagnosis of Croup

Keep in mind that while it is often very easy to diagnose croup, it can sometimes be difficult to tell whether a child has viral (infectious) croup or spasmodic croup. Each type of croup may have a different cause.

In some cases, spasmodic croup can be triggered by allergies, asthma, or even reflux. Viral croup can be caused by one of many different viruses, including parainfluenza, adenovirus, RSV, and influenza.

7 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Cleveland Clinic. How to Care for Your Child’s Croupy Cough.

  2. Bennett JE, Dolin R, Blaser MJ et al. Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett's Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases E-Book. Elsevier Health Sciences; 2009.

  3. Cedars Sinai. Croup in Children.

  4. Stanford Children's Health. Stridor.

  5. Croup and Your Young Child.

  6. Harvard Health Publishing. Epiglottitis.

  7. Lin SC, Lin HW, Chiang BL. Association of croup with asthma in children: A cohort study. Medicine (Baltimore). 2017;96(35):e7667. doi:10.1097/MD.0000000000007667

Additional Reading

By Vincent Iannelli, MD
Vincent Iannelli, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Iannelli has cared for children for more than 20 years.