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Cough is a very common problem for children. The most common cause of cough is a respiratory tract infection, such as a cold.
Young children usually have six to 12 respiratory tract infections per year, usually caused by viruses.
Antibiotics don't help with this sort of cough. Sometimes, children may cough for many weeks after a viral infection; we call this a post-viral cough and, again, antibiotics are usually no help.
Sometimes a cough may be caused by a bacterial infection in the throat or chest; antibiotics may be prescribed by your doctor to treat a bacterial infection.
Cough medicines are not useful in treating cough in children; in fact, recent studies suggest that some cough medicines may be harmful to younger children. Current recommendations from the Australian Government Therapeutic Goods Administration are that cough medicines should not be used in children younger than six years old.
Children older than six years old should only take cough medicines on the advice of a health professional. However, there is no scientific evidence that cough medicines will be helpful.
There is some recent evidence that honey may reduce the severity and duration of a cough. In children more than one year of age, one to two teaspoons of honey taken 30 minutes prior to bedtime may be helpful. Honey should be avoided in children less than 12 months old because there may be a risk of a rare condition called botulism, which causes muscle weakness.
A child who has a persistent cough at night might have asthma. Usually, children with asthma will have other symptoms as well such as wheeze and difficulty breathing. Many children with asthma also suffer from allergies and eczema. If you are concerned that your child may have asthma see your local doctor for an examination and more information.
Return to your doctor/hospital if your child becomes unwell (eg high fever with poor feeding/drinking, decreased wet nappies, difficulty breathing).
If you are concerned, your local doctor can refer you to a paediatrician (specialist children's doctor). Some post-viral coughs may be present for many weeks (eg after bronchiolitis). Be guided by your doctor's advice or ask for a referral to a paediatrician.
Developed by The Royal Children's Hospital Emergency Medicine and General Medicine departments. First published: July 2006. Reviewed: December 2012.