Understanding Your Child's Croup Symptoms

Learn the difference between a regular cough and a croup cough

Girl coughing into her arm
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Croup, also known as acute laryngotracheobronchitis, is a very common viral infection in children. Various viruses can cause it, so if your child gets croup, it is possible they can get it again.

Like some other childhood viral infections—such as roseola, which causes a fever followed by a rash, or fifth disease—croup has distinctive symptoms and is generally easy to recognize. There is no formal test for croup. Your child's pediatrician will most likely diagnose it based on the presence of certain telltale symptoms. 

Symptoms of Croup

Children with croup are usually about six months to six years old, have a few days of a low-grade fever, coughrunny nose and then suddenly—typically in the middle of the night—develop:

  • A bark-like cough
  • A hoarse voice
  • Difficulty breathing and inspiratory stridor (a snoring type of noise that kids with croup can make when they breathe in), which can often be confused with wheezing
  • Continued fever, which can be low-grade or up to 104 degrees Fahrenheit, although some kids with croup don't have any fever at all

If your child has croup, their symptoms are likely to be worse at night, when they are agitated, and better during the day, when he or she calms down. Symptoms can also get better when your child is exposed to cool air, which explains why many children get better on the way to the emergency room.

Although most cases of croup are mild and go away when treated with home remedies, some children have more severe symptoms and need immediate medical attention.

These more severe symptoms can include:

  • Difficulty breathing or stridor when your child is sleeping, calm, or not agitated
  • Having croup and being very fussy
  • Drooling and difficulties swallowing
  • Visible pallor or a bluish discoloration of their fingernails or around his or her mouth
  • Lethargy

Distinguishing Between a Cough and Croup

Croup produces a very distinct cough, said to sound like a barking seal. If you are not sure what that sounds like, you can search for "a croup cough" videos on YouTube.com to get a better idea. A croupy cough sounds much different than any another cough your child will have a cold, asthma, or bronchitis.

If you suspect that your child may have croup—especially if you think that your child may have severe croup symptoms—call your child's pediatrician right away. Your child's doctor can help diagnose croup, and figure out the best way to treat the condition so your little one can feel better fast. 

Treating Croup

If your child has croup, your doctor may prescribe a steroid to help reduce any inflammation your child may have in his or her airways. If your child has a severe infection, they may need to be hospitalized. At home, you can set up a humidifier to make them more comfortable. If your child is agitated, try and remain calm as to better help them relax. Fluids and fever reducers can help manage their symptoms as well. If you are concerned your child's infection is not clearing up, do not hesitate to call your doctor.

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    Article Sources
    • Behrman: Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics, 17th ed.
    • Viral croup. Knutson D - Am Fam Physician - 1-FEB-2004; 69(3): 535-40